Call it a last-minute whim.
As pregame warm-ups were coming to an end Sunday, Mike Nugent found himself staring at that big blue cat that is painted across the turf in the middle of Ford Field and figured he ought to try at least one practice field goal off the Detroit Lions’ logo.
The Cincinnati Bengals kicker remembered a couple of preseasons ago when the Bengals played here and he’d walked across the midfield design and noticed the turf felt “different” than the rest of the playing surface.
“I was lucky I remembered, so I went out there again to get a feel for it,” he said. “It felt like a fresh coat of blue paint — it made the turf a little harder — so I knew you’ve got to loosen up the spot a little bit before you kick.”
Talk about intuition.
A little over three hours later — with just four seconds left in a game that was tied 24-24 — Nugent was called to midfield to kick the game-winning field goal off the upraised right front paw of that same snarling blue lion.
A week ago the Centerville High School product had won the game in Buffalo in overtime with a 43-yard field goal. This time the kick would be from 54 yards — just one yard shy of his career best effort.
That he was getting the chance was a tribute to a total team effort at game’s end.
“Two weeks in a row it was the same thing,” said the Bengals veteran tackle Andrew Whitworth. “We had a great punt, then our guys made a defensive stop. There was a good punt return by us and a solid play on offense to get the ball in field goal range and then it was up to the kicker making the kick.
“You can’t get more team than that.”
The Lions though weren’t going to make it easy.
After Nugent had scuffed the blue paint with the toe of his shoe, walked off his approach steps and set up to kick, Detroit called a time out to play with his mind, his nerves, his confidence.
Nugent countered by trotting back toward the Bengals sideline, where he took an imaginary practice kick as three defensive teammates stood a few feet away, but refused to make eye contact for fear of distracting him.
Bengals kick returner Brandon Tate was not so superstitious or reverent.
He walked a couple steps onto the field and called out to Nugent.
“He was the best,” Nugent said with a grin. “He just said, ‘Hey, no pressure… All it is is just the next kick.’
“The fact that a returner said that to me was great. That’s very good line for a kicker. You’re only as good as your next kick. It was pretty good to hear that.”
When Nugent finally returned to midfield — with the roaring home crowd standing and waving white towels , some Lions players yelling and the pressure mounting — he headed straight to Kevin Huber, the Bengals punter who serves as his holder.
“I try to leave him alone,” Huber said. “Most kickers just like to be left alone so they can get into their zone.”
When Nugent was an All American at Ohio State, he said it was completely different with Andy Groom, the Buckeyes punter who held for him.
“Andy would always say something goofy to me. He’d call me by my middle name or something, just to calm me down and make me laugh,” Nugent recalled.
And what is that middle name?
“Edward,” Nugent said and that made him laugh again.
Some Lions were using other names for him, and the Bengal who was closest to those catcalls was long snapper Clark Harris. He was being needled, as well.
“Guys always say a couple of things to get in your head, but I just shut my mind off,” he said. “I don’t think about anything — not the time, not the score, nothing. Literally, what goes on in my head is nothing. Absolutely nothing.
“That snap is just like any warm-up snap; I get over the ball and then just throw it between my legs.”
As he waited for the snap, Nugent went through one brief check list of mechanics; nothing else. He said he did not think about his other kicks Sunday, not the 48-yarder he made in the third quarter and especially not the 47-yarder he missed in the second quarter.
“In my past years I might have dwelled on that miss during the game,” he said. “I’d be lying to say I’m not upset at that moment, but I’ve learned over the years to see what I did wrong right away … and then forget about it because it has NOTHING to do with the kick at the end of the game.”
When he finally kicked the ball at game’s end, he said he had to watch to see if it would be good.
“I didn’t think I actually bombed it out there,” he admitted, “but I knew it was a good solid hit. But I made sure to watch it because I didn’t want to start cheering if it went the other way.”
Harris said he didn’t follow the flight of the ball.
“No, I was lying on the ground covered by about 900 pounds worth of bodies, so I didn’t see the kick go through,” he said. “I wasn’t sure until I saw the guys celebrating.”
Nugent’s 54-yarder gave Cincinnati the 27-24 victory at the final gun.
“I went straight to Kevin and gave him a goofy fist bump,” Nugent said in the dressing room afterward. “After that I was mobbed.”
The first guy to get to him was tight end Alex Smith, who wrapped his arms around him and hoisted him into the air. A week ago in Buffalo, it was Smith’s holding penalty that nullified Nugent’s 24-yard field goal late in the third quarter.
Instead, Nugent had to re-kick from 34 yards and missed, although he did make up for it with the game-winner in overtime.
“The best thing about a kick like this is seeing all the guys celebrate out there on the field,” Nugent said. “It just shows we did a whole bunch of things right at the end of the game.”
And one thing right just moments before the game began, too.