Throughout this season, Appalachian State’s special teams unit has made an obvious improvement from last year’s squad. Junior punter Bentlee Critcher and senior kicker Zach Matics both have had a hand in the turn around.
“We’ve been really solid at special teams,” head coach Scott Satterfield said. “Bentlee’s punted the ball great. Matics has kicked the ball off great, and he’s made his field goals. We’ve done a tremendous amount better than we did last year.”
After a special teams meltdown against Southern Mississippi last season in which Matics went 0-3 in field goals, booted two kickoffs out of bounds and had the game-tying extra point blocked in a 21-20 loss, Matics couldn’t seem to find any sustained success in 2014-15. He finished by making only one field goal in five attempts, and was replaced by Critcher at times, but the coaching staff continued to show faith in Matics, who entered 2015 with a completely different mindset.
“This is my last year,” Matics said. “I really have nothing to lose. I’ve been going out and not thinking about missing like I was last year. I was a little nervous, but now I know what the worst is like. So, going up there, I have a lot more confidence this year.”
Matics has responded by going 11 of 12 in the field goal department this season, almost 92 percent, with a long of 51 yards against Wyoming in rainy, foggy conditions. His lone miss this season was a 52-yarder to end the first half against Georgia Southern that would’ve extended the Mountaineer lead to 20-7.
He’s kicked with 100 percent efficiency in extra points, a perfect 49 of 49, and even leads the team in overall scoring, accounting for 82 total points. Junior running back Marcus Cox trails with 42 total points.
Critcher has improved steadily in his junior season and has given Satterfield confidence in the punting game.
“Critcher is a smooth operator,” Satterfield said. “Nothing fazes him. He has a lot of poise. He’s a good football player, not just a good kicker.”
In high school, Critcher never came off the field, playing offense, defense and special teams. The transition to only punting has not been an easy one.
“Hands down, it’s the hardest thing I’ve had to adjust to,” Critcher said. “I’ve accepted it. I know my role, and I’m happy where I’m at.”
With the ability to focus solely on punting thanks to Matics’ resurgence as kicker, Critcher has definitely embraced his role. He’s surpassed his 2014 totals in almost every statistical category — averaging a punt distance of 43.9 yards, a season long of 60 yards, five touchbacks and 15 punts from 50-plus yards — which is why he has been nominated for the Ray Guy Award, given to the top punter in collegiate football.
On top of that, the Mountaineers have also been able to utilize some of Critcher’s athleticism this season.
“Since my freshman year, I’ve been in coach Satt’s ear like, ‘Run fakes. Run fakes. Run fakes,’” Critcher said. “This year we’ve had the opportunity. The whole special teams as a unit has executed them.”
One fake that worked involved both Critcher and Matics. In the Homecoming game against Wyoming, Appalachian State opted to run a fake field goal option.
“Bentlee and I looked at each other, and we were like, ‘This is it. This is what it’s all about,’” Matics said.
At just the right time, Critcher executed the pitch to Matics, and the play ended in a Mountaineer first down.
“Somehow the ball ends up in my hands and I run for just enough,” Matics said. “It speaks volumes to our athleticism. We are athletic and we like to show it.”
Matics takes pride in converting trick plays from the kicker position.
“It doesn’t happen a lot,” Matics said. “It’s a way to show our skills outside of kicking and punting.”
Critcher also had the opportunity to showcase his arm against Arkansas State, when the team called a fake punt on fourth and long deep in their own territory.
The play was designed to go to senior defensive back Doug Middleton, but at the last second the defense switched, and Critcher had to improvise by throwing a 36-yard pass to senior wide receiver Malachi Jones.
“I just tried to give him a ball he could catch,” Critcher said. “At first I thought I over threw him. But I saw he adjusted to the ball and caught it, and I was really happy.”
Critcher ranks third on the team in passing as a result of the fakes, a perfect 2-2 for 36 yards.
Whether running a trick play or executing on normal special teams in the kicking and punting game, Matics and Critcher play a pivotal role in the success of the Mountaineers, who improved to 8-2 (5-1 Sun Belt) following the 45-28 victory over Idaho Saturday.
“As a special teams unit I feel like we’ve improved tremendously from last year to this year,” Critcher said. “I feel like they’ve got all their confidence in me and I’ve got all the confidence in them.”
Story by: Colin Tate, Sports Reporter