James Langford had just nailed a pressure-packed kick — the game-winner in Saturday night’s improbable 27-24 comeback victory over No. 17 South Dakota.
And as much as any team could celebrate with a slim lead and 36 seconds left in the fourth quarter, Cal Poly (5-3, 3-0 Great West Conference) went wild.
After Langford’s 39-yard field goal, the sophomore kicker roared and rushed to the sidelines to the waiting embrace of teammates and coaches.
It was impossible to tell that just 8 hours earlier, Langford was sitting on an exam table at Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center, fielding theories on a mysterious chest condition that had crept up overnight.
“They said a muscle might have gotten attached to my rib. They said it might have been gas that couldn’t get out,” said Langford, who shared the Great West Special Teams Player of the Week award Sunday.
“There wasn’t really a clear thing. It was really weird. I got a chest X-ray, and they said I was good.”
Langford said he had trouble getting to sleep Friday night when sudden chest pains caused him to take shorter breaths. Still struggling on Saturday morning, he decided to go to the hospital to make sure he’d be able to play.
“I’m sure glad that they cleared him to play,” Walsh said. “That was a huge kick.”
In less than three seasons on the job at Cal Poly, Walsh has already experienced his share of ominous game-day phone alerts.Before a 2009 victory over Southern Utah, starting quarterback Tony Smith suffered a deep cut to his throwing hand after breakfast when a drinking glass he was washing shattered.
Smith skipped stitches, played in the game, and the Mustangs held on for a 24-23 victory on a missed extra point.
Saturday’s game also came down to the final kick, and the tension Walsh experienced wondering whether Langford would be able to play was nothing compared to the pressure the kicker felt as Cal Poly began setting him up for the game-winner.
With 1:08 left in the game and the Mustangs having already turned a 17-0 deficit into a 24-24 tie, safety Greg Francis returned a South Dakota punt 44 yards to the Coyotes 29-yard line.
The Mustangs used three conservative run plays to gain seven yards and force South Dakota (5-4, 2-1 Great West) to use all three of its timeouts.
“And I had all the confidence,” Walsh said. “That’s why we weren’t going to throw the ball in that situation. I had all the confidence that 42-to-45 yards, I was good with him kicking that to win the game.”
Finding success in those situations is the reason Walsh offered the former five-star recruit a scholarship and beamed while featuring his highlights in the signing-day news conference two years ago.
Including Saturday’s performance, when he also connected from 22-yards out, Langford is 11 for 15 on field goals and has scored 61 points this season.
He’s given Cal Poly the kind of kicking weapon it hasn’t had in years, but that would have mattered little had he missed the big one.
All that and more cycles through a guy’s head as he’s warming up on the sideline while his offense angles its dive runs toward his preferred hash mark.
“I’m extremely nervous,” Langford said. “It’s impossible to completely remove yourself from the situation. But if you start getting bad thoughts — that happens to a lot of kickers in big moments, they get bad thoughts like, ‘Oh, man. If I miss this it’s going to be awful.’ But you just have to overcome those thoughts and just think about how cool it’s going to be when you make the kick.”