Josh Czajkowski didn’t merely make a near-miraculous return from a hamstring injury that was originally thought to be season-ending. The N.C. State kicker had a 47-yarder among his two field goals and three extra points in a 29-25 win over North Carolina.
“I told him on Thursday he should have done this a long time ago,” N.C. State coach Tom O’Brien said. “No, I did. I said, ‘You should have pulled your hamstring a long time ago,’ because he’s smooth. … He’s kicking the ball better, he feels better, there’s a much better rhythm the way he’s doing it.”
Czajkowski injured his right, kicking leg in N.C. State’s loss to Clemson on Nov. 6, and freshman Chris Hawthorne took over at kicker against Wake Forest last weekend. But Czajkowski’s progressed far faster than anyone could have envisioned, and by game time Saturday he was ready to handle place-kicking duties, with Hawthorne handling kickoffs -- to his surprise.
“I didn’t think I would be back this fast,” Czajkowski said, while acknowledging O’Brien’s “smoothness” theory.
Czajkowski wasn’t the only star on special teams. North Carolina’s Casey Barth hit a career-long 49-yard field goal, N.C. State’s T.J. Graham blew the game open with an 87-yard punt return that gave the Wolfpack a 24-19 lead and N.C. State punter Jeff Ruiz, who lost his starting job to Andy Leffler after three games, emerged from football Siberia with less than a minute to go and punted the ball 57 yards down to the 5-yard line. Two plays later, a sack gave N.C. State a safety and the win.
Barth made four field goals, giving him 46 for his career and the active ACC lead. Barth has also made 65 consecutive extra points. It was the third game of his career with four or more field goals, although the Tar Heels would be left bemoaning their inability to turn those scoring opportunities into touchdowns.
“As much as it is good to make them for Casey, and he made a great one today from 49 yards, the ones you get inside the 20 you need to knock them in and score touchdowns,” North Carolina coach Butch Davis said.
Graham has two career kickoff returns for touchdowns, but his sprint down the left sideline -- only North Carolina punter C.J. Feagles even had a shot at him, and Graham brushed him off -- was the first punt return of his career for a touchdown.
“We’ve been waiting for him to do that all year long,” O’Brien said.
Graham, who grew up an N.C. State fan in Raleigh, knew exactly what his return -- and the win -- meant.
“I’ve been a State fan since Carter-Finley had the grass side and I used to slide down on pizza boxes,” Graham said.