The kick, and kicker, that gave Portland State its big win at Montana
Portland State true freshman Cody Williams trotted onto the field with nine seconds left last Saturday to attempt a 52-yard field goal that would beat Montana in Missoula.
In Murrieta, California, there was little doubt what was going to happen next.
"I guarantee you Cody wasn't that nervous or worried," says Matt Stratton, who was Williams' kicking coach last season at Murrieta Valley High. "I knew he was going to make it."
He did. And that touched off a wild celebration by the Vikings, whose 22-20 victory stunned the crowd of 25,205.
The group hugs lasted long after the game, on the field and in the Portland State locker room, with players mobbing Williams, coach Bruce Barnum and one another.
"It was insane," Williams says.
The Vikings had never won a Big Sky game at Montana, considered the toughest place to play in the conference.
"They say, 'Act like you've been there before,'" Barnum says, "but not many teams go into Washington-Grizzly Stadium and win, so it's hard to act like that."
PSU had lost 12 conference games in a row, dating to 2016.
The Grizzlies came into the game ranked 14th in the nation.
"It still feels like a fairy tale," Williams says.
At Murrieta Valley, Stratton had seen Williams perform both with near perfection and in the clutch for the Southwestern League champion Nighthawks. So, last weekend, the kicking coach had a flashback to a 59-56 upset of Santa Margarita on Nov. 10, 2017. Williams won that one with a 45-yarder with two seconds remaining.
"Cody always believes he's going to make it, whatever it is," Stratton says. "Some people call it arrogance, but he has unwavering confidence."
Well, says Williams, "I'm definitely not going to believe I'm going to miss it."
The kick that beat Santa Margarita was huge.
"But this one tops that a little bit," Williams says. "This one had the same atmosphere, the same vibe, but there were all those people, and it was so loud, and it was a lot more important."
It was extremely important to the Vikings, who have been plugging away through all sorts of adversity the past few years and went 0-11 in 2017, when they could barely buy a field goal, going 3 for 9 for the season.
"Everybody knows what winning does for a program," PSU coach Bruce Barnum says.
So, who is this Cody Williams, and how did he come to be a Portland State Viking, and how has the spotlight fallen on him so quickly? (He was named Big Sky and national special teams player of the week).
Williams, who is listed at 5-10 and 180 pounds, was born in Alexandria, Virginia. He lived for a while with his family in Germany before they moved back to Virginia, and then to Murrieta in 2008. Growing up, he was a good soccer midfielder, and he played a bit of high school volleyball. But at Murrieta Valley, he began to concentrate on kicking and punting. "He started going to kicking camps and winning those," Stratton says.
Still, prep kickers are never first in line for college scholarships. Most wind up having to walk on, and then hope they can prove themselves enough to someday earn a partial scholarship or, if they're really lucky, perhaps more than that.
Williams was ranked as the 15th best prep kicker in his class by one scouting service. He says he talked to recruiters from Texas El-Paso, Washington, Oregon State, San Diego State and New Mexico.
Barnum, recognizing that his team had a major and urgent need, offered him a full ride.
"We knew he was good," Barnum says. "We were lucky to get him. And we knew we had to get a kicker — no messing around this time. I screwed up last year (not getting one with a scholarship offer), and I wasn't going to do that again."
Williams visited Portland State and "was really excited about it," Stratton says. "It just seemed like he knew he wanted to be there, and once he got the (scholarship offer) he was really stoked. He knew he could compete at that level."
"The coaching staff made me feel like I was home from the start, and the chance to compete for a starting spot was big," Williams says. "I pretty much fell in love with Portland when I got here. It felt like a great match."
For most high school football teams, the kicking game is hit and miss, at best. Williams made life a lot easier for the coaches at Murrieta Valley.
"With Cody, it was never an adventure," Stratton says. "It was more like, make this one and move on to the next one and make that one, too."
As a senior, Williams was 4 for 6 on field goals (the 45-yard game-winner the longest), and 68 of 69 on PATs.
"We scored a lot of touchdowns, and I think the last league game the holder messed up a snap and fumbled it, and that ruined Cody's perfect season," Stratton recalls. "Cody was a little upset about that."
This year, Williams has made 7 of 8 field goals and is 17 for 17 on point-after kicks for the Vikings, who are 2-4 overall and 1-2 in the Big Sky going into their homecoming game — 2 p.m. Saturday at Providence Park against Northern Colorado.
"Somebody obviously coached him up before he got here," Barnum says.
Williams' one miss this season was from 49 yards, Sept. 29 at Idaho, on his fourth try as a Viking.
The following week, he was 3 for 3 in the Montana game.
"A little alignment thing," Williams says. "We got that fixed … and at Montana I got to show it off a little bit."
Until Saturday, Williams' longest made field goal was from 45 yards. Even in high school, though, he demonstrated a right leg that was strong enough for more. At Murrieta Valley, he routinely kicked off through the end zone for touchbacks.
"I made a bet with him that if he ever kicked off and put it through the uprights, I'd take him to dinner wherever he wanted to go," Stratton says. "He got close enough that I was little nervous, for sure."
Williams has been kicking off for the Vikings as well. And he wasn't fazed when the field-goal try with the Montana game on the line turned out to be from 52 yards.
"I defintely thought I had it in me," he says. "I knew the fundamentals would kick in. All kicks are the same; you've got to put everything in them.
"As long as I get it straight, I know I can do the distance."
It helped that Montana coach Bobby Hauck called a timeout the first time Williams lined up to kick, as the Griz tried to ice the rookie.
"Cody told me after the game that he was really nervous when he first went out there but that the timeout gave him time to relax," Barnum says.
"It gave me a minute to get in my zone and get focused, and get it done," Williams says.
Ditto for PSU's new long snapper, sophomore Daniel Giannosa from Modesto, Califonira, and the Vikings' redshirt freshman holder, Davis Koetter, from Tampa, Florida.
Giannosa, a reserve tight end, was starting as a snapper for the first time in place of Riley Shackelford, who is out for the season with a torn ACL.
Koetter is a receiver and backup quarterback.
"Those two guys did their jobs perfectly," Barnum says. "And that's not easy, especially given the situation and in that environment."
Williams also gives credit to his teammates.
"Gio comes in and does a great job — we keep telling him he's the best backup snapper in the country," Williams says. "And Koetter is a great holder. He does his job every week and makes it look easy."
Giannosa is like the Manute Bol of long snappers, standing 6-8. Barnum likes to refer to him as "the tallest long snapper in NCAA history."
Does his height make it any more challenging to perform the long-snapping duties?
"I don't know," Giannosa says with a shrug and a smile. "I've never not been tall."
On the winning field goal at Montana, Giannosa says he went out for the snap telling himself, "You've done this a thousand times (in practice), so just do it one more time."
With three Grizzlies lined up to knock his block off, Giannosa wound up on his back, but he was able to see — and hear — that the kick was good.
"The crowd was so loud you couldn't hear anything," he says, "and then it was totally quiet. … It was one of the coolest experiences of my life."
Koetter, the son of Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter, says his job as holder was "super easy because of what everybody around me did. Gio put it on the money with a great snap, and those guys up front — Montana brought the house, coming to block it, and we had some unbelievable, unselfish acts on the line. Kenton Bartlett and Noah Yunker on the right edge made two huge, phenomenal blocks, sacrificing their bodies. And then Cody knocked it through."
Williams leads the Vikings in scoring this season with 38 points. Standout tight end Charlie Taumoepeau is second with 30.
Williams matter-of-factly says he's not surprised he has been able to put points on the board this early in his college career.
"No, honestly, I've been practicing so much, it's what I've been working for," he says. "Maybe I'm surprised a little that I get these opportunities, but I'm just glad the coaching staff has faith in me. I'm glad they were able to throw me out there at Montana and believed I could put it through the sticks."
Giannosa and Koetter also say they aren't surprised at Williams' contributions.
"It's amazing, but we all knew he could do it. Cody's very calm and collected out there," Giannosa says. "Halfway through the (Montana) game, he pulled out a Snickers bar and ate it on the sideline. The crowd thought that was pretty funny."
Off the field, Williams is an outdoorsy young man. He likes to hike, go mountain biking and snowboard.
"I love Portland," he says. "The weather, the atmosphere … how it gives you an urban feel but also has the outdoors and everything around it."
He doesn't shy away from getting involved in efforts to help others, either.
At Murrieta Valley, he was instrumental in starting a club on campus known as SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions). He traveled to Washington, D.C., a couple of times to represent Southern California.
He also was a leader in a nonprofit group, Project 99, that brought awareness to teen suicide. It was launched after the death of a high school football teammate who wore No. 99.
"Cody helped out a lot with that, organizing 5Ks and dinners, and with fundraising," Stratton says.
At Portland State, Williams plans to major in business management.
"This is an amazing school, especially for my major," he says. "I've thought about becoming an accountant."
It might not be a bad idea for him to keep an account of all his kicks and points. Maybe someday a pro football team would be interested in seeing that kind of report.
"If the opportunity to play pro came up, I would definitely take it," Williams says. "But I will have a backup plan, just in case."
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