Kevin Gorman: Pitt punter Kirk Christodoulou all smiles after pinning Georgia Tech
Kirk Christodoulou listened to advice from anyone and everyone after mishandling holds on kicks and punts against Penn State, from telling him to take a deep breath to remembering who he is and what he does.
The best suggestion brought a smile to the Pitt punter’s face.
“Actually, funny enough, someone said, ‘If you just crack a smile, smiling makes your brain be happy,’ so a couple times I just gave myself a little half-smile before I caught the ball,” Christodoulou said.
“I think that might’ve put my mind in a better place. I just took a deep breath and you sort of black out a little bit while you’re out there. You just catch it and punt it and go from there.”
Christodoulou was grinning like a Cheshire cat after Pitt’s 24-19 victory over Georgia Tech in the ACC opener Saturday afternoon at Heinz Field — and not just because he didn’t drop the ball.
Special teams play was critical, as Pitt’s Alex Kessman converted three point-after kicks and a 33-yard field goal. Georgia Tech failed on a fake punt and missed both a 52-yard field goal at the end of the first half and an extra point in the third quarter. The Yellow Jackets also failed on a 2-point conversion, trying to make up for the missed extra point.
That’s plus-six for Pitt and minus-six for Georgia Tech in a game decided by five points. Simply put, it’s the difference between winning and losing, between first and last place in the ACC Coastal Division.
Christodoulou averaged 39 yards on six punts — includes a couple of pooches — and played a pivotal role for the Panthers in the field-position game by starting and ending the game with punts that pinned the Yellow Jackets inside their own 20-yard line.
That the last one helped clinch Pitt’s win was a role reversal for Christodoulou, who botched holds that cost the Panthers on a point-after kick and a field-goal attempt, mishandled a high snap that caused a turnover and hit a line-drive punt that was returned for a touchdown in the 51-6 loss to Penn State.
That made the 21-year-old redshirt freshman from Melbourne, Australia, the Blunder from Down Under, a nickname he had no intention of allowing to become permanent.
Christodoulou was counseled by Pitt teammates and coaches, as well as fellow Australian punters, from the Steelers’ Jordan Berry to Blake O’Neill, who knows something about notoriety.
O’Neill dealt with the devastation of how a mishap can cost his team a game in an intense rivalry. The former Michigan punter mishandled a waist-high snap against Michigan State, and Jalen Watts-Jackson scooped and scored in the final 10 seconds for a 27-23 victory in 2015.
“It was really nice to hear that from another Australian and a guy who’s been through the same thing,” Christodoulou said of O’Neill, adding that Berry also gave good advice: “He spoke to me as a friend during the week and just said, ‘Take a deep breath. You’re still a punter. You still can kick a good ball. There’s a reason you’re there. There’s a reason they recruited (you).’ It was nice to hear that.”
That was exactly what Christodoulou needed to hear. After all, the Penn State debacle was only his second college game, his first serving as a holder after starter Jake Scarton was injured. But Christodoulou played with a slicker ball in Australian Rules football and wasn’t about to use the downpour of rain or slippery field conditions as an excuse.
It was a test, one he calls a learning curve.
“I’ve definitely played in the rain before. It’s just that, as a kicker and a specialist, it’s all sort of a mental battle,” Christodoulou said. “That’s why it was such a great learning curve this week. It showed me that I’ve really got to put things behind me. If I have a bad punt, come out and absolutely crush the next one, which I tried to do and move forward from every experience.”
Christodoulou is a bit of a character, as his handlebar mustache suggests. He shaved his beard that way as a training camp gag, only to see it so well-received that it became his trademark look.
“We thought for three weeks of camp no one was going to see me, so if I shaved into a ridiculous mustache no was going to see it,” Christodoulou said. “It happened to stick around and it’s become a bit of a pop-culture thing and everyone’s loving it.”
So, Christodoulou grinned before and after his first punt sailed 37 yards before a fair catch by Georgia Tech’s Brad Stewart at the 13. The Yellow Jackets went three-and-out before punting, the start of a field-position battle that Pitt won in the first half.
Christodoulou couldn’t help but beam after his 45-yard punt was downed by Jazzee Stocker at the Georgia Tech 1-yard line with the Panthers leading, 24-12, and 4:08 remaining in the fourth quarter. There’s nothing like pinning your final punt.
And it proved critical, as the Yellow Jackets answered with a 14-play, 99-yard scoring drive capped by Clinton Lynch’s 3-yard run with 37 seconds left. But the drive took 3:31 off the clock, more than it would have required had a touchback given Georgia Tech the ball at the 25.
“I can’t stress how important special-teams is,” Pitt senior linebacker Quintin Wirginis said, “and to have a punt like that at a critical point in the game means a lot.”
It meant the most to Christodoulou, who couldn’t wipe the smile off his face.
A smile that shined even under his signature ’stache.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at [email protected] or
via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.