Misiona (Misi) Aiolupotea-Pei grew up playing rugby, where there’s no such thing as blocking a kick. But it’s a skill he’s picking up quickly in football.
Although the senior defensive lineman officially was credited with only one of Washington State’s two kick blocks last week, a check of the video makes clear he made both — one with a raised arm, leading to a stunning runback for a 2-point conversion by George Hicks III, and the other with a well-placed helmet.
In any case, Cougars coach Mike Leach reluctantly admitted field goals and PATs — essentially the Misi and Mazza show — were the high points of WSU’s performance in a 33-20 loss Saturday at California. In addition to the two blocks, the Cougs’ Blake Mazza converted both his field-goal attempts to improve to 15-for-15 for the season.
“So there — we’re good at field-goal block and we’re good at kicking field goals,” Leach said during the postgame news conference, disgusted by other facets of the Cougars’ play. “We’re terribly excited about that.”
The Cougars (4-5, 1-5) play their first home game since Oct. 19 when they face Stanford (4-5, 3-4) at 1:30 p.m. Saturday (Pac-12 Network) at Martin Stadium.
Aiolupotea-Pei, at 6-foot-3 and 270 pounds and whose nickname of Misi is pronounced “Meesee,” played rugby in his native New Zealand before moving to Australia six years ago and eventually taking up football. He spent two seasons at Riverside (Calif.) City College, and his football education accelerated when he transferred to WSU last year. He started the Cougs’ first five games this season as an undersized nose tackle and continues to see substantial playing time there.
“I’m relatively new to the game, so I feel like I’m always playing catch-up,” he said early in the season. “A lot of these guys have been playing since they were 5, 6 years old, and I started playing when I was 18. I most definitely feel like I’m learning every day.”
It was on special teams that he sparkled last week.
On an early PAT attempt by Cal’s Greg Thomas, Misi fended off blocks from the center and right guard and made a leaping, extended-arm block. Hicks caught the ball on the fly and raced to the opposite end of the field for a rare defensive 2-point conversion.
Misi’s other block was less obvious. Early in the fourth quarter, Thomas lined up for a 39-yard field goal, and Misi assumed the same position as before. But after the snap, he shifted to the other A-gap, brushed off a blocker and leapt just high enough to catch Thomas’ low kick with the side of his helmet. The play-by-play recorder, probably thrown off by Misi’s shift, credited the block to Lamonte McDougle. A WSU spokesman said he’ll check coaches’ video to get the stats right.
As for Mazza, he stayed perfect as a sophomore by kicking field goals of 30 and 35 yards and, by making his 15th attempt of the season, became eligible for a school single-season percentage record. Andrew Furney went 14-for-16 in 2011 to set the WSU record of 87.5 percent. The Pac-12 standard of 96.2 percent was set in 1982 by Washington’s Chuck Nelson, who went 25-for-26.
Mazza, a Texan who redshirted a year at Arkansas before transferring to WSU, also is 41-for-41 in conversion kicks this season, making him 101-for-103 in his career.
Leach, whose coaching philosophy is predicated on prolific offense, famously plays down the importance of field goals and punts, an attitude implicit in the sarcasm of his postgame comment in Berkeley, Calif.
For Mazza, that heightens the need to make every kick count.
“If you’re a kicker here, you’re playing but you’ve got little opportunity, so it’s make or miss,” he told interviewers in the WSU episode of “24/7 College Football” that aired on HBO in October. “We’re on our own island. I’ve talked to coach Leach personally five or six times, and that’s it. He’s out there with the offense and he just kind of lets me be. He says, ‘Go do your thing.’”
Dale Grummert may be contacted at email@example.com or (208) 848-2290.