LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- There are bigger names on the University of Louisville football team. There are higher profile players.
But the Cardinals wouldn't be soaking up the New Orleans AllState Sugar Bowl atmosphere without the work of one player who doesn't get much buzz.
Redshirt freshman kicker John Wallace was the difference in victory and defeat at least twice for the Cardinals. He hit the game-winner against Cincinnati -- after Bearcats' coach Butch Jones called a timeout to ice him. And it was the leg of Wallace, on a 29-yard field goal with 1:47 left in Piscataway, N.J., that gave the Cardinals a 20-17 victory at Rutgers and punched their BCS ticket.
"I'm real proud of him," U of L special teams coach Kenny Carter said. "He gives us stability. If the kick is 40 yards or less, it's like a layup. Our players don't think the kid is going to miss."
And for the most part, Wallace doesn't. He made 14 of 17 field goals this season. Of the three misses, one was a 57-yard try against Cincinnati, and another was a 47-yarder into the wind at Rutgers. His 82.4 percent accuracy tied for 18th nationally.
Not bad for a guy who didn't even think about kicking until the Central Hardin football team asked for volunteers from the soccer squad during his freshman season -- or for a guy who never imagined kicking for the Cardinals, having grown up a die-hard fan of the University of Kentucky. In fact, when U of L played the Wildcats in Rupp Arena last season, Wallace couldn't bring himself to root against the Big Blue.
"The transition to being all-Louisville football was really easy," Wallace said. "In basketball, I was cheering for UK in the regular season, but by the Final Four, I was U of L."
Heading into the season, kicking was perceived to be a huge question mark for the Cardinals. But Wallace, a low-key, no-nonsense kid from Cecilia, Ky., had more answers than Wikipedia. He kicked a 52-yarder in his first Spring Game, which would've tied for the longest in U of L history had it come in a regular-season game.
A scene from practice: Trager Indoor Facility, a week before Christmas. At the end of the session, coaches set up the field goal unit from 56 yards out. Wallace booms one -- it falls short of the elevated end zone net by about a foot. Then another, and yet two more, the same way.
"The guys are all yelling, 'Come on John! You can do it!'" Carter said. "We forgot -- that net is four yards even behind the end zone. And he's 56 yards out and he's banging them through."
Wallace got into kicking as a curiosity at Central Hardin. But his kicking coach, Dallas Halcomb, quickly realized his potential.
"He told me my freshman year that I'd be playing in college," Wallace said. "I didn't think it was true. Then I started going to kicking camps and realized I was always one of the top guys. . . . Coach Halcomb is the reason I'm here."
Wallace went on to earn All-State honors as a senior, and his 32 career field goals ranked second in state history. All of that earned him an honor sometimes elusive for kickers -- a scholarship. Many teams will try to get kickers to walk on, but U of L coach Charlie Strong didn't play around with Wallace. In his first meeting with him, he told him he had an offer from the Cardinals.
Wallace was so excited that when he told his parents about it and they asked whether it was a scholarship offer or a walk-on spot, he wasn't sure. So Wallace rather sheepishly walked back up to Strong's office to ask.
"He just laughed," Wallace said. "He said, 'You've got a scholarship here.'"
The investment already is paying off for U of L. Of his game-winners, Wallace says, "I like to be able to do things like that. Those are big kicks. If you haven't put in your work, you're not going to make those. But earn you respect with your teammates, which is always nice."
After the Cincinnati game-winner, teammates carried Wallace off the field.
"That was like a dream, like it wasn't even happening to me," Wallace said after the game.
Wallace doesn't keep to himself like some kickers. He started lifting weights with the defensive backs earlier this season, and now he says assistant strength coach Brandon Roberts, "just thinks of me as a DB, and he gets mad at me if I come in to lift with the kickers."
"People don't realize how good this kid is going to be," Carter said. "He won two games for us. You think about it. Two games it came down to what he had to do. He doesn't do what he does, we're sitting in a tough spot. The kid, intellectually and academically, he's so smart that nothing fazes him."
Whether he'll have a chance to decide the Sugar Bowl game against Florida is a matter of debate. But there can be no debating -- without him, U of L likely wouldn't have been in the game to even have that discussion.
Saturday, August 30 2014 3:51 PM EDT2014-08-30 19:51:46 GMT
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