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Season review part 2: Special teams are special

Christopher Dunn

Florida State v NC State Photo by Lance King/Getty Images

Imagine NC State’s record this year with an unreliable kicker. Actually, don’t. No stop. I’M NOT KIDDING, FRANK.

(If a guy named Frank happens to read this, he’s going to be totally freaked out).

Chris Dunn was the best kicker in college football this year. If you don’t agree, you can take that up with Lou Groza. I just spoke to him yesterday and he confirmed it. I’ll forward you the email if you want. Dunn made 28 of 29 field goals and was a near-perfect 10 for 11 from beyond 40 yards. He was the superstar of an elite special teams unit that NC State probably doesn’t even make a bowl game without.

Dunn made at least three field goals in four separate games this year. He hit four including a 53-yarder in a two-point win against FSU. He hit a 51-yarder against Wake, without which Wake is driving to win the game in the final minute.

Special teams are critically important, and 2022 is as much a testament to that as any year I can remember. State had good special teams all year, and a lot of teams it beat had major holes in their special teams units. That ended up being the difference more than once.

Eastern Carolina

  • NC State’s anemic offense sucks the whole game, but special teams finds a blocked punt touchdown along the way.
  • ECU kicker Owen Daffer misses an extra point and a game-winning field goal. State wins by one

Florida State

  • Chris Dunn hits four field goals including a 53-yarder. He accounts for 13 of the 19 points the team scores. State wins by 2
  • FSU is in position to kick a field goal in the final minute, but concerns at kicker lead them to take a shot to the endzone, which Devan Boykin intercepts
  • FSU punter Alex Mastromanno gives NC State the ball at the Noles 13 after running past the line of scrimmage and then punting the ball

Wake Forest

  • Chris Dunn goes 3/3 on field goals including a 51-yarder
  • Wake Kicker Matthew Dennis goes 0/1, Wake is down by 9 on their final drive instead of 6 or 3

UNC

  • Great punt return by Thayer Thomas gives NC State a chance to score at the end of the first half. Chris Dunn hits a field goal
  • Chris Dunn makes 3 of 4 field goals and hits two in overtime
  • UNC kicker Noah Burnette goes 2/4 on field goals, misses a chip shot and the equalizer in the second OT. State wins.

We were all there in 2016 and 2017, when NC State’s special teams were just a flaming garbage asteroid. It deserves praise how effectively Doeren turned that sector of the game into an asset for State. There are very few games since the big inflection post-2019 where you can make a good faith argument that State had the inferior special teams performance. Louisville this year and Clemson last year are about the only examples that come to mind, maybe Mississippi State as well. In fact, over the last three years that saw State bounce back from a 4-8 disaster and go 25-12, it has won at least one game because of a big special teams play in the final two minutes/OT in each season.

Special teams won’t always show up in the stats sheet, but just being able to execute the basics without mistakes will eventually be a difference maker when there are so many teams that can’t do that. The number of plays State has made beyond that over the last three years is really fantastic.

The narrative around the program is potentially very different right now if not for high-level special teams play over the last three years, and Doeren’s special teams turnaround since the Finley years is just as impressive as the turnaround he helped facilitate in the defensive secondary. Here’s some fun special teams numbers and letters.

  • In 2021, Trenton Gill was top 30 in punt average and 6th nationally in punts inside the 20
  • Thayer Thomas had one turnover in his career as NC State’s punt returner and zero since his freshman season
  • Chris Dunn won the Lou Groza award
  • Chris Dunn has never missed an extra point in his NC State career
  • The Pack scored a special teams touchdown in four straight games starting with the Wake Forest game in 2021 and ending with the ECU game in 2022
  • State scored 5 touchdowns on special teams over the last 2 years while allowing 2
  • NC State led the country in kickoff return average in 2021
  • Thayer Thomas was top 30 nationally in punt return average in 2022

The defense gets a lot of credit for dragging State’s butt offense to an 8-win season. And it should, it was one of the best defenses in the country. But State doesn’t sniff that number without routinely having the better special teams unit as well. It really was 23 of a championship football team.

It’s also a reason to be optimistic about the immediate future of State’s offense, at least from where I sit. For as many people as there are that think Doeren “is who he is,” the recent history of the special teams unit would seem to indicate the opposite, that Doeren is not only capable of changing and growing, but he’s also been pretty good at it, right Frank?

Read part one: The dumbest game ever played