"During the game, I said on the headphones, ‘I've never felt like I had my you-know-what kicked by a kicker before,'" said Wolfpack special-teams coordinator and safeties coach Manny Diaz. "But that's what it was like."
Indeed, Ohio State kicker Mike Nugent was tabbed as ABC's Player of the Game after pulling off the "feet" (pardon the pun) of dictating the game in a way rarely seen on any level of football. Nugent drilled five field goals – including three of over 45 yards – and crushed every one of his kickoffs, allowing only one to be returned by the Pack. "I can't remember ever seeing a better kicker," said Wolfpack offensive tackle Chris Colmer, who has seen plenty in his six years in Raleigh. "He kicked it through the uprights on a kickoff. That's pretty good."
What an understatement. In the first quarter, Ohio State lined up for a 45-yard field goal, and with the Pack crowd howling, committed a false start, giving Nugent a 50-yarder. No sweat – he converted easily. He did the same from 30 yards away with 2:33 left in the first half.
Nugent added a 33-yarder in the third quarter after a fumble by T.A. McLendon, and when McLendon answered with a touchdown to cut the lead to 16-7, Nugent connected from 46 and 47 yards away at the end of the third and beginning of the fourth to help put the game away.
"I know a lot of the discussion will be centered around ‘The defense played well and the offense did this or didn't do this' or whatever, but in reality, when you go into a game [it's the kicking game]," Diaz said. "If you look at every game so far in the ACC this year, all these back-and-forth games that have come and gone so far, the kicking game is going to be the difference.
"We knew that we had to win the kicking game to beat these guys, and we didn't. The penalties we had in the kicking game, the muffed punt we had in the kicking game, and they were flawless in all their things -- not to mention Mr. Super Leg."
Coach Chuck Amato has said that he feels the Wolfpack wins 90 percent of the time when it wins in the kicking game, which provides some insight into just how crucial he and his staff view special teams as being. And as upset as he was at the 14 penalties his team committed against the Buckeyes, he was even more upset at how many occurred in the kicking game.
"Anytime we had a chance … I remember the drive right after we scored the touchdown, we get a 15-yeard penalty, so we've got to kick off, and [John] Deraney kicks the heck of out of the ball and we run down there and cover real good," said Diaz. "And the first play, Manny Lawson almost takes Zwick's head off and the crowd is really into it and you're thinking, ‘OK, we've got a chance to have a game here.' Then we force them to punt, they punt, and we have a guy get a 15-yard penalty that backs us up. Then, on first and 10, there's another five-yard penalty, so it's first and 15 -- which any offense is going to have a hard time converting out of those bad down-and-distance situations. And you could just feel the energy just suck right back out of the stadium.
"It just seems like every time we had a chance to put two positive plays together, we just shot ourselves in the foot again."
And after every three-pointer Nugent nailed, you got the feeling that, "Hey, at least we have a shot to flip field position, maybe get a return so we're not always starting in the shadow of our own goal posts." And then Nugent would unleash that cannon leg and rifle the ball out of the back of the end zone, further demoralizing the Wolfpack and it fans.
To play Woody Hayes-style football – play field position, run the ball, use a stifling defense, win the close game – successfully, you need a great placekicker. And with Nugent in the fold, it didn't mean much that the Pack was able to hold the Buckeyes to just 137 yards of total offense.
"If you look at all the performances we've had defensively in the last five years, when we beat Florida State here a couple of years ago, they had 165 or something, and that was the lowest ever in the [Bobby] Bowden history," said Diaz. "But it just shows you that the ones that count are the ones down there on the positive side of the field -- and when you have a field-goal kicker that's good from anywhere in the stadium, it doesn't really matter."
So it's back to the drawing board as NC State prepares for Virginia Tech, another team renowned for its kick-blocking prowess. The Hokies have scored 41 touchdowns on returns since 1999, second in the nation behind only Miami (44) in that span. Left-footed punter Vinnie Burns is a two-time Ray Guy semifinalist and is averaging 46.7 yards per punt this year, while placekicker Brandon Pace is perfect on field goals (4-4) and extra points (15-15). And since 1993, the Hokies are 46-8 in games where they score at least one touchdown on defense or special teams.
Amato, Diaz and the rest of the Wolfpack coaches know that this game could be decided by a big play in the kicking game. And even with four penalties and a turnover in the punt return game alone, don't count on the Pack playing safe pool and declining to attack in search of blocks.
"There's a lot we can talk about, but that's one thing now going into Blacksburg, that we must, must improve on, and I think we will, because the kids are trying their butts off," said Diaz. "Even with the penalties, you can't fault the effort, but it's time to put on our smarty caps and play a little bit smarter.
"At the same time, the first roughing the punter [penalty] of the game, Marcus Hudson has a clean shot to block the punt and one of their guys tackles him in the backfield. So are their kids any less disciplined than ours or were the people with the yellow flags just angry at us?
"But it doesn't matter, because they called it -- and those are things we'll have to correct going into Virginia Tech."