From unknown to scholarship: Brandon Talton kicks Nevada past Purdue
For the Nevada Appeal
RENO — Jay Norvell spent the night before his Nevada Wolf Pack’s season opener worrying about a kicker.
“Even as late as last night I was contemplating who was going to kick,” the Wolf Pack head coach said after Friday night’s 34-31 comeback victory over the Purdue Boilermakers at Mackay Stadium. “I really was rolling around in my sleep thinking about it.”
The last thing most head coaches want to think about hours before a season opener is who to choose to kick field goals and extra points. But there was the third-year Pack coach, losing sleep trying to decide between senior Spencer Pettit and freshman Brandon Talton.
Pettit has been with the Wolf Pack since he redshirted in 2015. He was the Pack’s starting kicker from midway through the 2016 season as a freshman to through his sophomore season in 2017, making 17-of-20 field goals and 58-of-60 extra points. He lost his starting job a year ago to Ramiz Ahmed and kicked just three extra points and no field goals all season long. But he appeared to be in line last week to reclaim his starting job.
Talton a year ago was kicking field goals for Vacaville High in Northern California. He came to the Pack this summer as a walk-on with a large tuition bill.
“Spencer is a veteran kicker,” Norvell said, “a scholarship kid who has kicked in big games before.”
Norvell, though, chose the freshman.
“It was clear to all of us that Brandon just deserved the opportunity to kick,” said Norvell of his decision to go with the walk-on freshman against Purdue.
It is safe to say that hardly anyone in the crowd of 20,104 in the Mackay stands or even in the packed press box had ever heard of Talton before Friday night.
“At first I didn’t even know who the kicker was,” Wolf Pack junior wide receiver Elijah Cooks said. “I just found out a week ago he was the kicker.”
Talton didn’t find out he was the Pack’s starting kicker until roughly seven hours before kickoff.
“They told me at 11 a.m. this morning,” Talton said Friday night. “We (Pettit and Talton) were battling all week in practice. But they didn’t say anything.”
That’s because Norvell had to sleep on it. Talton made his Pack debut Friday night by kicking an extra point after a 38-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Carson Strong (another freshman from the Vacaville area) to wide receiver Dominic Christian late in the second quarter. He would kick three more successful extra points — the last one tied the game at 31-31 with 52 seconds to go — before the night came to a close.
Talton also drilled a 34-yard field goal late in the third quarter to cut Purdue’s lead to 31-17. “I thought it was Pettit at first,” smiled Wolf Pack cornerback Daniel Brown. “Then I looked up and said, ‘Oh, it’s the other guy.’”
That other guy saved his best for last on Friday night. With the game tied 31-31, the Wolf Pack and Talton lined up for a Hail Mary 56-yard field goal with three seconds left to try to win the game. Only two Wolf Pack kickers in history (Damon Fine against UNLV in 2001 and Tony Zendejas against Boise state in 1983) had ever kicked a longer field goal (both 58 yards).
“It sounds like a story, like someone just made this up,” Talton said.
Purdue, which led 24-7 at halftime and 31-14 in the third quarter, called a timeout just before Talton kicked the ball into the night air. Talton went through with the kick anyway and missed to the right.
“I think that practice kick helped him,” Norvell said. “He kicked that second kick way better than he kicked the first one. We coach them that when someone tries to ice them, you go ahead and kick it and get a practice kick. That’s pretty savvy stuff for a young kid who had never kicked in college before that game.”
Purdue made a costly mistake trying to ice Talton.
“I heard the whistle (for the Purdue timeout) and just said to myself, ‘OK. I’m just going to kick it and gauge the distance.’ After I hit it I just knew I was going to make the next one.”
Talton also had a secret weapon. The Wolf Pack coaches taught him this summer how to meditate and focus before every kick.
“We work on focus,” Talton said. “We work on meditation all the time and it helps a great deal with my focus and to be in the moment. I’ll tell you right now that in high school, if that (the Purdue timeout) would have happened, I probably would have just freaked out.”
Norvell, like he was tossing and turning in bed late Thursday night, was quietly freaking out on the Pack sideline.
“I think I wore my rosary out in my pocket,” a relieved Norvell said after the game.
Talton, whose longest field goal before Friday was a 47-yarder his junior year at Vacaville High, didn’t need any help from a higher power.
The 5-foot-8, 165-pounder booted one of the most dramatic field goals in Wolf Pack history, arguably the most important since another freshman, Anthony Martinez, kicked a 34-yard goal to beat Boise State in overtime on another magical Friday night at Mackay Stadium on Nov. 26, 2010.
“I hit it so good, I knew it was going in no matter what,” Talton said.
Talton’s kick set off a party and celebration, the likes of which had not been seen at Mackay since Martinez worked his magic in 2010.
“An amazing, amazing kick,” Norvell said.
Talton’s Wolf Pack teammates now know who he is.
“That’s crazy, man,” Brown said. “That’s a freshman out there and he’s making that kick? That’s big time.”
What does Cooks think about the kicker he just discovered a week ago?
“Now I love him,” smiled Cooks. “I love him.”
It was certainly an unbelievable storybook finish to a first college start.
“A freshman comes in and makes a 56-yard field goal against a Big-10 team?” said Cooks. “That is legendary. He became a legend at the University of Nevada in just one game.”
Talton spent the bulk of his youth playing soccer in Northern California. He didn’t become a full-time kicker until his sophomore year at Vacaville High. Nobody in college football thought he was worthy of a scholarship.
“I was talking to a few schools but it was nothing serious,” Talton said. “It’s not like they said they were going to give me money (a scholarship). It was just, ‘Yeah, we like you.’ That was it. I didn’t have a plan to go anywhere until Nevada.”
Norvell credits special teams coach Tommy Perry for convincing Talton to drive east on Interstate 80 this summer to Nevada.
“What can you say about this young kicker?” Norvell said. “He’s just been so consistent. He’s made the kicks in practice when we asked him to. And he kicks with confidence. That was a confident kick at the end of the game.”
There must be something in the water in Vacaville that boosts one’s confidence.
“I told him in the second half that we were going to score some touchdowns and when it came down to it he was going to kick the game-winning field goal and he did it,” said Strong, who played at nearby Wood High in Vacaville.
That 56-yard kick earned Talton an instant reward.
“I gave out another scholarship tonight,” said Norvell as Friday night was nearly turning into Saturday morning. “Talton got a scholarship. He earned it. I was happy to have one (scholarship) available for something like that.”
Talton didn’t know a scholarship was on the line when he looked at the goalposts 56 yards away late Friday night.
“After the game they were giving out the game balls and when they came to the last one, they just said, ‘Here’s your game ball and now you’re on scholarship,’” Talton said. “I just looked at them in awe. It was crazy. It still doesn’t feel real.”
It was about as real as a magical 56-yard kick sailing through the Northern Nevada night air. A legend was indeed born Friday night.
“I made all my kicks,” Talton said. “My first field goal ever. And it ended on a 56-yarder. That is what we work for. It definitely paid off. I’m on scholarship now.”
Talton’s work has just started at Nevada.
“I’m real focused on the Oregon game (this Saturday),” Talton said. “You have to keep going. I can’t just do it in one game. I also have to do my thing in the next game.”
Northern Nevada can’t wait for his encore.