With just under 11 minutes left in the fourth quarter, Maryland football’s offense got the ball back with an opportunity to trim what was a 17-point deficit to just one score.
Quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa engineered an eight-play drive that put the Terps on Minnesota’s 18-yard line, but a 16-yard sack pushed Maryland all the way back to its opponent’s 34-yard line, presumably out of field goal range.
But rather than calling on the punting unit, head coach Mike Locksley opted to send out kicker Joseph Petrino to attempt a 51-yard field goal. Holder Anthony Pecorella received the snap and placed it on the right hash, where Petrino launched the career-long attempt high into the College Park sky.
Petrino’s looping, end-over-end kick, split the uprights with ease, prompting the junior to sprint to the sideline, jumping in jubilation as his teammates mobbed him.
“That’s what he does,” quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa said after the victory. “Coach said we had the best kicker in the nation and we all trust in him. The hold was good, the snap was good and the protection was good, and if we give Petrino time he’s gonna do what he does.”
But, as has been the theme for much of his collegiate placekicking career, Petrino’s night was filled with a series of highs and lows.
Though the longest field goal of Petrino’s career to that point was just 40 yards, Locksley had called on him in a similar scenario earlier in Friday night’s contest when he trotted out the kicking team for an attempt from the same 51-yard distance with 15 seconds remaining in the first half.
Petrino looked to cut the Golden Gopher lead to four as the ball flew off his right foot and toward the goalposts. He watched as his thunderous effort looked destined to nestle into the netting behind the end zone and was ready to celebrate just as it hooked and slammed against the left upright, allowing Minnesota to maintain a seven-point lead into the halftime break.
“Coming out for that [kick] before the half, you know, I thought I had it,” Petrino said. “And then it hit the upright and I was devastated. I didn’t talk to anyone in the locker room at halftime.”
But during his time as a Terp, Petrino has been no stranger to adversity.
Coming out of Richmond Hill High School in Richmond Hill, Georgia, Petrino was a three-star recruit and the No. 12 ranked kicker in the class of 2018 per 247Sports. He was a viral sensation before he ever set foot on Maryland’s campus though, with a Twitter video of him kicking field goals with both feet, a 60-yarder with his right and a 50-yarder with his left, landing him on SportCenter’s Top 10 plays.
Petrino earned the spot as Maryland’s starting kicker his freshman season, where he made his first 11 career field goal attempts en route to converting 12-of-14 kicks on the year.
He once again was the team’s primary placekicker entering the following season but saw his usage diminish significantly. In Maryland’s week three matchup against Temple, Petrino suffered a groin injury, which he admitted took a toll on him physically and mentally as he tried to play through the pain.
“That not only hurt my actual performance ability, but my confidence as well,” Petrino said. “Because I didn’t know if I was gonna go out there and if my groin is gonna start hurting at any point in time.”
The 2019 Terps’ lack of offensive consistency also limited Petrino’s opportunities to make kicks within his range, leading to him attempting just five kicks that season, only two of which were successful.
Petrino again entered this offseason as the lead candidate for the starting kicking job, looking ahead to healthier and more offensively productive season in 2020.
However, the pandemic put an end to all formal team training and Petrino returned to his home in Georgia for much of the spring and summer.
With no open fields to practice on, he was forced to get creative to try to work on his game ahead of the upcoming season. He initially took to his backyard, kicking footballs against the walls of his house or into any kind of net he could get his hands on. He eventually would up the ante as spring turned to summer, hopping fences to get onto empty baseball fields to stay in shape.
But even being quarantined with his family for most of the time didn’t stop Petrino from staying on top of his game, going as far as practicing his kicking motion without a ball around his house to perfect his form.
Once the team facilities began to re-open in August, Petrino immediately began working with Ron Zook, a senior analyst with the team that boasts over 40 years of coaching experience in both the NFL and FBS.
With the season beginning to ramp up, Petrino focused on keeping his head down and following through, as well as adding height to his kicks to avoid blocks from defenders. As he worked on the side to perfect his kicking motion during practices, teammates began to take notice of the improvements the third-year kicker was making.
“We just see his work ethic every day,” junior linebacker Jordan Mosley said. “We see him every day at practice and he hits some amazing kicks every day. And he’s a hard worker, so I mean, everybody has faith when it comes to the game.”
Entering the team’s season-opener against Northwestern, Petrino was ready to back up his head coach’s assertion that he was one of the best kickers in college football, aiming to convert 100 percent of his kicks from within 40 yards and 80 percent of his kicks longer than that.
But another poor offensive showing resulted in Petrino being Maryland’s lone scorer against the Wildcats, drilling his only field goal from 33 yards out as the Terps were thrashed 43-3.
The offensive output Maryland showed against Minnesota bodes much better for Petrino’s prospects for a strong season though, as he could finally be a beneficiary of a functional, consistent offense.
Yet the most important factor to Petrino having a productive season in 2020 rests with his head coach, as Locksley’s level of trust and belief in his kicker will ultimately determine how often he sees the field. And after his performance last weekend, the second-year head coach couldn’t be happier with what he’s seen from his kicker so far.
“We’ve always had confidence in Joe,” Locksley said. “What we saw in him going and making that kick, there was not one hesitation in putting him out there because we’ve seen him do it in practice and he’s shown us that he’s capable of making those type of kicks ... I think that hopefully will help continue to build his confidence, which we have the utmost confidence in him.”
At a position that’s just as challenging mentally as it is physically, confidence can be contagious. For Petrino, the backing of players and coaches alike only adds to his own belief in himself to deliver in big moments.