Ben Sauls’ first season as Pitt’s placekicker didn’t get off to a hot start.
Sauls missed three field goals in Pitt’s first three games, including two misses in the loss to Tennessee – a game that went to overtime, which made those missed kicks sting even worse, even if he did make two kicks that day.
His third miss in the first three games was a 27-yard attempt at Western Michigan, and while he did connect from 48 yards earlier in that game, his 5-of-8 success rate to start the season was hardly encouraging.
Throw in the fact that Sam Scarton, who started ahead of Sauls in 2021, was waiting on the sideline as a possible replacement in the event of continued struggles, and Sauls was feeling quite a bit of pressure.
With a shaky offense struggling to find its footing, the last thing the Pitt coaches needed was unreliability on field goals, and Sauls wasn’t providing much in the way of consistency. But a mindset change and a refocus on process had a significant impact on the season – for both Sauls and for Pitt.
“I can admit that, at some point early last season, I was scared to miss,” Sauls said. “You think about it, why are you scared to miss? If you really grind that process, if you focus on that process, the outcome is obsolete. It’s going to be most likely where you want it to go. Like I said, nine times out of ten – you could say 99 out of 100 – if I do exactly what I want to do, the ball will go where I want it to go. So I think that was the biggest part.”
Sauls’ mindset change worked. He attempted five kicks over the next six games and made all of them before putting a 54-yard attempt off the upright at Virginia. He connected on three other kicks in Charlottesville, made a pair in Pitt’s two-point win over Duke and then played the hero in El Paso with a perfect five-for-five performance to win the Sun Bowl.
After starting 5-of-8, Sauls finished the season making 15 of his final 16 attempts, with the long-enough-but-off-by-an-inch miss at Virginia as his only blemish, and he went on that run by putting his focus on what he can control.
“I think I changed my mindset to not be so outcome-oriented,” Sauls said. “If I follow my process, if I step where I want to step and I plant where I want to plant and I follow through and hit the ball where I want to hit it, nine times out of ten, it’s going to go exactly where I want it to go. So it was more just being process-oriented, focusing on the process to get that outcome and the outcome will be there.”
The outcome was there in a big way in El Paso. Sauls scored Pitt’s first six points against UCLA with a pair of first-quarter field goals and then made two in the fourth quarter to give Pitt a six-point lead heading into the final four minutes of the game.
The story of what happened next won’t be forgotten anytime soon. Both teams turned the ball over on downs before UCLA drove 70 yards in 87 seconds to take a one-point lead with 34 seconds left in the game. But Nick Patti and the Panthers’ offense picked up 46 yards in four plays to put the ball at the UCLA 29.
From there, Sauls did his thing.
47 yards down the middle to give Pitt a two-point lead and the Sun Bowl win.
“You could call that a perfect game,” Sauls said of his five-for-five performance that was, in his word, perfect. “It was really unbelievable, from the line to the snap to the hold. It was nothing different. I wasn’t anything of a different person. But that mindset that carried all season long, through misses and mistakes, was there and it was sharp and it was ready to go and it was time. So it just worked out.”
Now Sauls figures to enter 2023 as one of the top returning kickers in the ACC. He was one of five kickers to make at least 20 field goals last season, and only one of the other four – Louisville’s James Turner – will be back this year. Miami’s Andres Borregales (17-of-20 in 2022) is also back, as is Georgia Tech’s Gavin Stewart (12-of-13). N.C. State’s Christopher Dunn paced the conference with a near-perfect 28-of-29 performance and was named to the All-ACC first team as a result; Sauls will likely be among the prohibitive favorites for that mantle this season.
“The biggest thing is, you put the work in and you get rewarded,” he said. “That’s a big deal.
You make your kicks and accolades follow, so my goal is just to go one-for-one. If you can do that over and over again, you start making your kicks. Like we saw last year: a little struggle at the beginning but we finished [15-of-16], which is phenomenal. So if we can just strive for that perfection, like I’ve always said, strive for it and chase the one-for-one over and over again, the accolades will follow.”
It remains to be seen how all-conference voters, in both the preseason and postseason, will view Sauls, but when he walks onto the grass at Acrisure Stadium for his first field goal attempt in the fall, he’ll have thousands of believers in the stands.
Making a 47-yard game-winner will do that for your reputation, and Sauls embraces the confidence.
“That was my goal coming here as a freshman,” he said. “I wanted to be the guy that, you know – ‘That’s the money guy. We’re going to put him out there, we’re going to believe in him, we’re putting him out there because we know he’s going to make it.’ Granted, I can’t promise I’m going to make every field goal. But I can promise that if I focus on that process, it’s going to go where I want it. So in regards to that, it’s nice being that guy. It’s nice having that – it’s not an authority thing. It’s nice having that confidence, having so many people confident in me only helps me out. At the end of the day, I really only need to trust myself, but when there’s other people who also trust me, it makes the whole game a lot easier.”