On A Wild Night, Pack Was Done In By Kicking Game

During coach Chuck Amato's weekly press conference, a reporter asked him Devin Hester's 100-yard kickoff return that gave Miami a 7-0 lead just 12 seconds into the game.

When Amato paused slightly, the media member added "the opening kickoff," as if to jog the coach's memory.

"I remember it, I do," said Amato. "Thank you."

The response elicited a round of laughter during the press conference, but there were no smiles on Saturday night when Hester danced untouched the length of the field – and then some – to get the game started on perfect footing for the Hurricanes.

"We spotted them seven points; and that's what they were favored," Amato said. "They were favored by seven and a half, so they should have spotted us seven, and it would have been an even game. But we fought right out of that."

You won't find many head coaches who value or stress special teams any more than Amato. That's why the head man was out on the field in the brisk weather prior to the game, intently watching placekicker/punter John Deraney as he warmed up. Amato knew just how dangerous Hester was, and he wanted to know if Deraney was kicking the ball well enough to nullify Hester by blasting it through the end zone.

What Amato – or anyone else -- didn't count on was Hester having the green light to take the kick out no matter where it landed.

"The thing that happened was that the ball landed four and a half yards short of where it should have; it was supposed to go out of the end zone," Amato said. "John Deraney was kicking off before the game, and I had a clock and was watching him. Most every one went five yards or deeper in the end zone and the hang time was like 4.4, 4.5 [seconds], which nobody in their right mind is going to bring out – unless you have an ‘S' on your chest, and he did."

Making matters worse, one coverage man got out of his lane and the two Wolfpack safety men in charge of funneling the return to the sideline didn't get the job done. One slipped and the other had a chance, so instead of pushing Hester out of bounds and making the ‘Canes put the ball in the end zone with an offensive play, Hester raced untouched.

It was only the start of a wacky night in the kicking game. The contest featured just about every possible scenario anyone could imagine, including NC State giving up three touchdowns on special teams to the No. 3 team in the land. Besides Hester's long return for a score, Miami had a fake punt that led to a touchdown and recovered a fumbled kickoff that resulted in yet another. By the time the Pack shook off the cobwebs from those blows, the outcome was decided.

As a result, cornerback Lamont Reid's 70-yard kickoff return didn't get many headlines. Neither did a botched snap by Miami on a punt attempt, or the fact that Hester appeared to fumble the ball away for a State touchdown late in the contest. Safety Troy Graham whipsawed Hester to the ground and the ball popped free, and linebacker Patrick Thomas ran it in for a touchdown. Graham was called for a facemask penalty, though replays appeared to show him bringing Hester down by the collar.

"The kicking game is what [the media] continues to miss; it was such a big part of it," said Amato. "But the big plays they made in the kicking game happened at points of the game that really helped. We made some big plays in the second half in the kicking game that kind of go unnoticed. We had kickoff return back to the 19-yard line that resulted in a touchdown; because of the fact of the concern of maybe having a punt blocked, the center snaps the ball and hits the up back and we get the ball inside the 10-yard line and we score a touchdown. If those two things would have occurred in the first quarter, they may have had more impact on the game.

"Somebody asked yesterday if I had ever seen a game that had so many things that the kicking game was involved in. A kickoff for a touchdown. Fake punt sets up a touchdown. Fumble on a kickoff return. Partially blocked punt, got no points. Onsides kick, got three points. A missed field goal. A kickoff return all the way to the 19-yard line. Bad snap. A punt that went awry because of trying to kick the ball away from somebody; a punt that went awry because of trying to get it off in a hurry because you don't want the punt to get blocked."

Understandably, Amato was out of breath by the time he finished reciting the litany of big plays that occurred in the kicking game. And he knows that it's likely to be the same way next week against Clemson, which features another the country's finest return men, Justin Miller. Amato half-jokingly mentioned that it seems like every week a Wolfpack opponent possesses a return man that can change the direction of a game in a long heartbeat.

"That's a Catch-22, buddy," Amato said when asked if Miller compares to Hester. "I ain't answering that one for all the money in the world.

"Yes, he does compare to Hester -- we already played Miami. You know what? [Miller] is good; he runs them back, too. It seems like every week we go to our kids in the special teams meeting [and warn them about that foe's return man]. And the next week in the scouting report, we say, ‘Oh, we lied to you last week. This guy is the best we're going to play against.'"

A weary smile accompanied that last, because Amato knows that losing the kicking game against any team the rest of the way could result in a loss. Because even though there aren't many more exciting plays for fans in football than a long kick return, they cause only headaches for coaches. And in the case of the Wolfpack's setback to the Hurricanes, a short week to break down just went wrong on special teams and how those mistakes can be corrected.

"There was an awful lot [happening] in the kicking game," said Amato, shaking his head. "If the kicking game was blasé, the game might have been blasé."

Translation: Less exciting for the fans, but more successful for the NC State team.

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