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Original Issue


No CFP game has ever been decided by a field goal. If he gets a chance this season, JUSTIN YOON has proved he has just the right mentality to nail it

JI YOON: Why is SPORTS ILLUSTRATED doing a story on Justin?

SI: Well, he is the leading scorer in Notre Dame history.

JI YOON: But he's just the kicker.

THE FATHER of Justin Yoon is only joking, but his wisecrack contains a kernel of truth. Including kickoffs, extra points and field goals, Justin is unlikely to be on the field for more than 15 plays against Clemson in the Cotton Bowl. And history suggests he might not even be a factor at all.

There have been 12 CFP games since the format debuted at the end of the 2014 season—and not one has been decided by a field goal. Last season's title game featured the dramatic combination of Alabama's Andy Pappanastos missing from 36 yards at the end of regulation and Georgia's Rodrigo Blankenship drilling a 51-yarder in overtime, but both were forgotten when Tua Tagovailoa heaved a 41-yard touchdown strike just two plays after Blankenship's bomb.

The playoff is long overdue for a game that ends with a kick either soaring through the uprights for the win or sailing wide and into infamy. But, Yoon says, "I never really think about it that way."

Getting too deep inside his own head can disrupt the muscle memory he's spent years training. So the senior will treat a 40-yard game-winner like it's an extra point in the first quarter. He'll stare at the spot just below holder Nolan Henry's hands, assessing where the ball will be placed and judging exactly where his right foot should strike it. And he won't pick up his head until the ball is well on its way. "The kicking game has such a big mental aspect," he says. "When adversity hits, what are you going to do?" The answer: the same thing you always do.

Growing up in Nashville, Justin played lacrosse, soccer and hockey because Ji—who spent his youth as a figure skater in South Korea before attending boarding school in the U.S.—liked the structure and discipline of practice. A football coach at Justin's middle school saw him playing soccer and asked if he wanted to try kicking a football. Soon he became a weapon on kickoffs, launching the ball so high that eighth-grade return men struggled to catch it, creating turnover opportunities. Still, Justin thought his future was in hockey, where he played everything but goaltender. (His older brother, Eric, now studying medicine at Emory, was the goalie in the family.) Justin left Nashville to attend high school at Milton (Mass.) Academy, hoping the education and the hockey program would help him to one day play in the Beanpot Tournament. Mired on the fourth line, Justin realized his future might not involve a puck.

A four-year starter who earned a degree in finance, Yoon has 364 points, 44 more than the Irish mark set by tailback Allen Pinkett in 1985. He has made 58 of 72 career field goal attempts, connecting on 19 of 20 inside 40 yards in the past two years. His consistency from that range makes him uncommonly valuable. Notre Dame special teams coach Brian Polian gets a lot of videos of would-be recruits making 60-yarders on empty fields, but he'd rather know how a kicker will perform in a situation he might see three times in a game. "That's what Justin is great at," Polian says. "We know what his outer stretches are, but he's really, really consistent."

At the Cotton Bowl, Notre Dame won't have an advantage in this department. Clemson senior Greg Huegel has more experience in pressure-packed moments: He has already kicked in four playoff games, including two national finals, and the neutral-site environment at the Cotton Bowl won't compare with the hostility he faced as a sophomore when he drilled a 46-yarder at Florida State to give his team a brief lead late in the fourth quarter. (The Tigers still needed a Deshaun Watson--led TD drive to win.)

In the Orange Bowl, Oklahoma's Austin Seibert is another four-year starter with playoff experience and major records (including the Oklahoma and Big 12 scoring marks, with 488 points). Seibert missed a 33-yarder that would've beaten Army on Sept. 22, but he's made all 12 of his attempts since.

The Tide's kicking game is the most suspect: It ranked 73rd in the FBS in field goal percentage (72.2%). After just two games Bama switched kickers, with redshirt freshman Joseph Bulovas replacing graduate-transfer Austin Jones after Jones missed two extra points in a 57--7 win over Arkansas State. Bulovas finished 12 of 16 on field goal attempts and 68 of 73 on extra points.

Alabama played for the national title after the 2015, '16 and '17 seasons, ranking 84th, 57th and 90th, respectively, in field goal percentage—and won the championship twice. So kicking isn't the most important thing ... until it is. When a playoff game finally comes down to a field goal, the player who can block out everything else and concentrate on the spot where his foot will meet the ball won't be "just the kicker." He'll be a legend.