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Four Downs: N.C. State limps into bye week with second straight loss

N.C. State is struggling to score points and heads into a bye week with more questions than answers.

RALEIGH, N.C. -- After scoring 23 or more points in three of its first four games this season, N.C. State has now scored 23 total points in its last two games combined -- both losses, and both losses to mediocre ACC teams (Syracuse and Wake Forest). The latest setback, a 24-10 defeat at home to Syracuse, marked a season-low in points scored. 

Heading into a bye week, it put N.C. State at 3-3 and asking itself a lot of questions. 

1. Injuries, injuries, injuries

The hits just keep on coming for the Wolfpack, as they were already without starting safety Jarvis Byrd (injured last week) and wide receiver Rashard Smith for this game, plus offensive lineman Rob Crisp (who hasn't played this year), starting QB Brandon Mitchell (out since Game 1) and defensive lineman Daryl Cato-Bishop (who has missed the last few games, including this one). 

During the Syracuse game, they lost Joe Thuney (replacing Crisp at left tackle; hadn't missed a snap this season), freshman cornerback Joe Tocho (who had two interceptions in his first start before he got hurt), defensive tackle T.Y. McGill and then backup quarterback Pete Thomas (separated shoulder).

Tocho and Thomas should both be fine, according to Doeren, and after a bye week, Mitchell -- and perhaps some of the other starters -- will be back. But that didn't help NC State this week. 

The defensive injuries perhaps hurt the most, as Syracuse was able to punish the Wolfpack's front and run the ball seemingly at will in the fourth quarter. "(The injuries) hurt us, but at the end of the day, we can't let that affect us. We've got to keep going, keep pushing," linebacker Robert Caldwell said.

NC State has had trouble stopping draws up the middle the last few games -- particularly with Wake Forest quarterback Tanner Price -- and Syracuse was having success with that early. "Over-pursuing, not staying in our gaps and then playing a little too fast," Caldwell said of the issue there.

But in the fourth quarter, a Syracuse rushing attack that was already churning along pretty efficiently suddenly went crazy. The Orange had seven fourth-quarter rushes for 134 yards (and two touchdowns). Prince-Tyson Gulley, Jerome Smith and even quarterback Terrel Hunt were able to rip off some nice runs that set up scores. 

Thomas' injury occurred when NC State was probably too far behind to mount a comeback, but it might not have mattered. Wildcats QB Bryant Shirreffs didn't go in -- instead, it was third- or fourth-stringer Garrett Leatham.

As Shirreffs (who finished with 24 yards rushing) said, yes, the offense would like everyone to be healthy. But that's not the case, and they have to make do with what they have. "It'd be great, but that's not football, realistically. Injuries, they're always going to be there. We've just got to work through them," Shirreffs said. 

But this team needs to worry about getting too wrapped up in the bad luck it's facing and try to get the healthy guys playing well, Doeren said. 

"The guys we have, we're going to coach them as hard as we can and they've got to play as hard as they can. Would I like to have every player in the lineup? Absolutely. But I don't get to complain about that," Doeren said. "I've got to coach who's there, and we will, and the trainers are doing everything they can to get the rest of them back to us."

2. To go or not to go? 

NC State is 2-of-6 on fourth-down tries over the last two games, and decisions on when to go for it or not have been ... well, they've been interesting. Against Wake Forest, NC State faced four fourth downs of five yards or less in Wake territory (at the 43 or better) when the game was still in doubt and either punted or kicked a field goal all four times. 

The most questionable one was a pooch punt at the Wake 35-yard line in the first quarter in a scoreless game. It was 4th and 2 at the Wake 35; if a pooch is unsuccessful, you net 15 yards of field position. NC State had quarterback Pete Thomas pooch punt, and the result was a touchback. Wake scored on its next drive. 

So after eschewing a fourth-down try until the end of the game when it was desperation time last week, that wasn't the case this week. Of the four fourth downs of five yards or less NC State faced in Syracuse territory (before garbage time), they went for it twice and didn't get either one. 

One was a fake field goal attempt where kicker Nik Sade attempted a pass that fell incomplete. That was in the third quarter down 10-7, and facing a field goal that would have been 48 yards. Not out of Sade's range by any means, even in the drizzly weather. 

The first was a 4th and 2 at the Syracuse 8, and NC State had wildcat quarterback Bryant Shirreffs under center. He missed on a pass to fullback Tyler Purvis in the end zone. It seemed like a puzzling play call -- although if Shirreffs hits Purvis, it's a touchdown. 

"I could either hand it off, keep it or throw it to Purvis. I made the right decision, but I just underthrew him," Shirreffs said. "I'm not sure what happened. When it released my hand, I thought it was a good pass. I told (Purvis) to go more outside and watch the safety. He did it right and I just missed him on that one."

Facing a fourth and three at the Syracuse 10-yard line, NC State took the points and tied the game at ten. Then facing a fourth and five at the Syracuse 38-yard line -- no man's land for punts -- one would think that State's aggressive play-calling on fourth down with a tie game would've led to the Wolfpack going for it. 

One would have been incorrect. They punted, it was a touchback and Syracuse promptly scored on the ensuing drive to go up 16-10.

That's not to say that any of these calls are right or wrong, by the way. It just seemed inconsistent. It's hard to get a handle on how Dave Doeren and the decision-makers on his staff want to handle this team.

But that's the product of a bigger problem, which is ...

3. The offense isn't very good right now

At least, not without this year's original starting quarterback Brandon Mitchell and that's what made the aggressive play calls so interesting. Obviously, Doeren believes in backup quarterback Pete Thomas. He said after the game that Thomas missed some throws, but that his receivers also dropped some balls. It was probably more Thomas missing throws -- he finished 17-of-35 -- and he just seemed off. 

He's done an admirable job filling in for Mitchell, but as the competition increases, State's offense needs to go from adequate to very good. It's not right now. No one on that offense scares you, at least not without a way to get the ball in their hands consistently. Going into the game, it had seemed like Mitchell -- who broke his foot in State's opener -- would be back for the Syracuse game. 

But when Thomas struggled his first few series and he didn't come in, it was clear he wasn't ready. 

"It wasn't close. I think for the rest of our season, I could have played (Mitchell) and put him at risk and I'm not going to do that," Doeren said. "I think it was (last) Sunday and Tuesday, he came out in shoulder pads. He can stand there and he can throw it really good, but I can still tell he's not himself when he's going to have to run. 

"We've shown this year that our quarterbacks are going to have to scramble at times, and I don't want to put him in that position until I know for sure he's safe, and I think he will be by the next game. They told us 6-8 weeks, and this is Week 6, so we're at the beginning of when they predicted he'd be ready."

It's not just the quarterback, though. Losing Thuney meant NC State was down to its third-string left tackle, and just couldn't get explosive plays. The longest pass play was 29 yards by Leatham, and the long rush was by Thomas (38 yards). 

Shirreffs, though, thinks the Wolfpack aren't far away. Even without Mitchell. 

"I think we want to succeed and we all want success, but we're just coming up short a couple times, just little mental errors," Shirreffs said. "One person (messing up on) a play, that'll just kill you. You see that all over the game. Like, ten men can't do their job -- it has to be 11 for all facets of the game."

To Shirreffs, the issue is dedication. 

"I just think we're not as dedicated as we need to be. I'm not speaking for everyone, but as for myself, I know in the first couple games, I was making a lot of mental errors. I've been dedicating myself (to fixing it)," Shirreffs said. "I've been expecting the mental plays for everyone to go down, but we're still beating ourselves in a way and that needs to quit before we can be a great team."

4. The bye week is coming at a good time

N.C. State needs to figure some things out. Is it the team who dominated two inferior opponents at home in Louisiana Tech and Central Michigan, plus played Clemson close? Or is it the team that needed a last-second field goal to beat Richmond, and now has lost two straight to mediocre (or in some cases, bad) ACC teams? 

Even healthy, it's hard to say what NC State is. The defense is excellent, but no matter how many times it forces turnovers or makes plays, it can't win a game by itself. Will the offense be able to click again right away when Mitchell comes back? It'll have to happen sooner rather than later, and games that seemed easier when the season began -- at Duke, at Boston College and even ECU at home -- now seem more daunting for the Wolfpack. 

So, with three wins, can they get to a bowl? The short answer is, probably. "I think we can. I think everyone thinks we can still win out," Shirreffs said. "You expect to win every game, but we've got to fix our mental preparation first before we can stop making mistakes."

But bowl or not, it's time for NC State to find out who it wants to be this year. "We need to find ourselves and we need to get back to the practice field and we need to work on some things to get better in some certain situations," Caldwell said. 

The Wolfpack have a bye next week, then have three of the next four games on the road, starting with Florida State. Yeah. They're is a good team, but the psyche can be a fragile thing -- especially with such a young group -- and a humiliating loss in Tallahassee could send this team to a bad place. They're going to need to get sharp, and fast, to salvage what could still be a very good season in Doeren's first year.