LINCOLN — Pat Smith calls himself a risk taker. That's how he explains why he gave up his scholarship and starting job at Western Illinois after his junior season to walk on and compete to be Nebraska's kicker for one season.
"Sometimes," Smith said, "you have to bet big to win big."
Smith will go into the Gator Bowl against Georgia on New Year's Day having made 11 of 12 field goals for the Cornhuskers, including a 42-yarder in overtime on a frosty field to beat Penn State on the road.
No doubt, Smith's move to Nebraska has been a win-win for both parties.
"I'm really happy for Pat," coach Bo Pelini said. "It's not easy to do what he did, to make that decision to come in and compete for a job."
Smith said he always envisioned kicking at the highest level of college football. He left Quincy, Ill., in 2009 to walk on at Missouri and quickly found out that he wouldn't beat out incumbent Grant Ressel.
He transferred to FCS-level Western Illinois, where he won the kicking job for the final six games in 2010. He was the Leathernecks' special teams player of the year in 2011. Last year he made all 10 of his field-goal attempts and was a finalist for the Fred Mitchell Award, which is given to the top kicker at a non-FBS school.
Having completed his undergraduate degree last year, Smith was able to use his final year of eligibility at a school that offered a graduate program Western Illinois didn't. He's scheduled to finish his master's degree in actuarial sciences at Nebraska in 2015.
"It's been such a wild ride as far as how my career has gone," Smith said. "I could talk for hours about everything I've been through with transferring multiple times, the ups and downs. I'm just happy to be here to get that opportunity."
He said he learned risk-taking from his father. Bryan Smith worked in the insurance business when he and his wife, Donna, were married. But he always had an interest in motorcycles and dreamed of owning a dealership.
With two young children, and Donna pregnant with Pat, Bryan Smith opened TNT Action Sports in Quincy in 1990. Three years later, he had to rebuild the dealership after it was destroyed by a Mississippi River flood.
"My dad had a lot of sleepless nights," Smith said, "but he's doing what he loves."
Pat Smith said he spoke with a couple other Big Ten schools before landing at Nebraska.
"I just wanted a chance to kick in front of 90-100,000 people, a chance to kick in the Big Ten, a chance to be on that big stage," he said. "Having that opportunity to roll the dice and take a chance at it is something I wanted to do."
It looked as if scholarship kicker Mauro Bondi would be next in line at Nebraska after Brett Maher graduated following the 2012 season. Smith won a competition that wasn't settled until the second week of October. That's when Smith began to handle point-after kicks and field goals exclusively. He went on to earn All-Big Ten honorable mention from the media.
Smith's biggest field goals came on a cold, windy and snowing afternoon at Penn State. His 19-yarder late in the fourth quarter pulled the Huskers into a 20-20 tie. In overtime he was set up for a 37-yard attempt. He split the uprights, but a false start forced him to try again from 5 yards farther away. He made that one, too, earning him a ride on the shoulders of his teammates.
"That's the reason I came here," Smith said, "for an opportunity like that."