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LOUISVILLE – Matt Nakatani made his first game a memorable one.
Nakatani, a Shelby County High School graduate and University of Louisville redshirt sophomore placekicker, booted three extra points and two field goals – including a 45-yarder – in his first career appearance in the Cardinals’ 35-7 victory over Missouri State on Saturday at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium.
“It was my first game; I wanted to show what I’ve got,” Nakatani said.
Nakatani had said he thought he might see action in UofL’s season-opener against Kentucky on Sept. 2. He and redshirt freshman John Wallace battled for the No. 1 spot. Wallace, however, got the nod against the Wildcats and connected on all three of his point-after-touchdown kicks as well as a 22-yard field goal.
A few days before the UK game, though, Nakatani indicated that the top spot on the depth chart may be ever-changing this season.
“One day, it’ll be him, and one day it’ll be me,” he said. “It’ll probably be a day-by-day thing.”
Indeed, Nakatani found out last Tuesday that he’d be handling the PAT and field-goal-kicking duties against the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) Bears.
“[Special teams] Coach [Kenny] Carter came to me on Tuesday said, ‘Make your kicks this week and you’ll be ready to play,’” he said. “I had a great week actually, only missed a couple kicks, and I got all the reps in practice all the way up until [Friday].”
Nakatani said he made six kicks from 47 yards last week in practice. Then in pregame warm-ups Saturday he was hitting some from 50 yards.
“I just relied on my high school days. I used the same routine,” Nakatani said of how he prepared himself for his first start.
And it didn’t take long before he got a chance to show his stuff.
On Louisville’s second possession the Cards drove deep into Missouri State territory before their drive stalled at the 2. That gave Nakatani a chance for a 19-yard field goal – about the same length as a PAT – and he easily converted it.
“That’s how I approached it,” he said. “It felt great to kind of get that kick out of the way.”
UofL scored its first touchdown on its third possession of the game and lined for a PAT. However before Nakatani could try a kick, the Cards quickly snapped the ball, and holder Will Stein, the team’s backup quarterback, passed to Marcus Smith for a 2-point conversion.
“I was blocking,” said Nakatani, who is 5 feet 8 and 160 pounds. But then he added, “I just stood in somebody’s way. I’m not going to move anybody out of the way. I just get in their way.”
Nakatani knocked in his first PAT after Louisville scored a touchdown on its next drive.
The Cards punted on their fifth possession, but it looked like Nakatani might get a chance for another field-goal attempt just before the half as UofL drove into Bears’ territory. However on second-and-10 from the MSU 41 Cards quarterback Teddy Bridgewater fumbled away the football as he was hit just before he started his throwing motion.
“If we got to the thirty-five I was going to kick a fifty-two-yarder,” Nakatani said.
He got more chances to kick in the second half, though.
Early in the third quarter Nakatani was watching from the sidelines as UofL drove down the field on its first possession of the second half. He got on a stationary bike about the time the Cards crossed midfield, then started taking some warm-up kicks. On third down from the MSU 4 he got closer to the sideline, behind the coaches, waiting for his chance at another field goal or a PAT.
A holding penalty on the Bears gave Louisville a first-and-goal at the 2. The Cards scored on third down – on Bridgewater’s pass to Ryan Hubbell – to give Nakatani a second PAT kick. Once again he easily converted the kick, then got a slap from Stein and began to trot off the field, but not before receiving congratulatory taps on the top of the helmet from a couple of linemen.
On UofL’s second possession of the second half the Cards drove to the MSU 28 before Bridgewater threw back-to-back incompletions, leaving Louisville with a fourth-and-5. On the sideline, UofL Coach Charlie Strong consulted with Carter.
“Kenny Carter said, ‘He can make it,’” Strong said. “I asked if he was sure because in practice he hasn’t been making it from that distance, but I said, ‘Let’s go ahead and put him in there and kick it.’”
So, with the wind at his back, Nakatani ran onto the field.
“With that kick I just went out there thinking it’s going to go in,” he said.
After the ball left his foot, though, Nakatani said he didn’t know that it had cleared the crossbar with room to spare, for a few moments anyway.
“I really couldn’t see, everybody stopped in front of me,” he said. “Then everybody came running at me and picking me up.”
After 6-4, 242-pound sophomore lineman Lorenzo Mauldin gave Nakatani a lift, literally, plenty of congratulatory slaps on the head followed, including several from Strong.
“Running over to Coach Strong that was the best part,” he said. “He was just joking around with me and saying, ‘I didn’t know if you were going to make it or not.’”
Said Strong afterward: “You’re so happy for Nakatani. To see Nakatani make it and to see the players on the sidelines telling him it’s his turn was so pleasing.”
And although Nakatani’s father, Thoroughbred jockey Corey Nakatani couldn’t make the game (he was in California), he let his son know his was pleased with his performance soon after the game ended.
“He told me ‘Congrats,’” Nakatani said. “He’ll probably make it out this week.”
The Cards (2-0), who were ranked 19th in the new Associated Press Top 25 released Monday, host North Carolina (1-1) at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Papa John’s. And although Nakatani wasn’t sure last Saturday if he’d be handling the kicking duties, he indicated he would be ready this Saturday against the Tar Heels.
“I just focus on making every kick whenever I’m called,” he said. “I showed today what I’ve got.”