RALEIGH, N.C. — First-year head coach Dave Doeren wants N.C. State (3-2, 0-2 ACC) to be more fundamentally sound, especially on defense. For the most part this year, it has.
But what Doeren saw last week in Winston-Salem in a 28-13 loss to Wake Forest disturbed him. He told his team that in a team meeting on Sunday, because he’s always been honest with them and he isn’t going to stop now.
So after starting 3-1 with the only loss being a competitive one at home to No. 3 Clemson and everyone feeling pretty good about themselves, it all came crashing back to earth with the loss at Wake. And he told them the cold, honest truth.
“I don’t think our team played for each other in our game,” Doeren said. “I think there was a lot of guys that when the scheme was totally different that went back to some old habits that weren’t very good habits, and it hurt us.”
He said he was going to learn a lot about his team based on their first road trip together, even if it was just under two hours down I-40 to Winston-Salem. What he learned was that when in doubt — and there were moments of doubt, as Wake Forest debuted its wide line splits for the first time this season on offense — the defense reverted back to what it knew and stopped playing with sound technique.
The result was a middling Wake Forest team that had struggled offensively putting up 28 points, its most against an FBS team this season. Wake had seven touchdowns in its four FBS games combined entering last weekend’s game.
That bothered Doeren. Win or lose, wide line splits or no, he wanted his defense to adjust and do what it was supposed to do.
“Regardless of your talent, you don’t lose your fundamentals. I don’t care. And we didn’t play smart enough to win,” Doeren said. “Win or lose, I want to see fundamentals. I want to see toughness. I want to see attitude. I want to see guys playing together or for each other and with each other, with excitement. And that’s the first game I haven’t seen us do that. So is it because we were out of Carter-Finley? I guess. I don’t know. It’s very disappointing, though, to me.
“I’m not going to lose sight of the big picture of our program. I know where the program’s going. But I’m not going to stand here and say that what we did was OK. It’s not. It’s not OK. It’s not OK to go on the road and not play well.”
Perhaps the most disturbing part of it for Doeren from a team perspective was the lack of discipline. This N.C. State team has had issues with penalties all season, but the Wolfpack seemed to have every penalty come in a key moment of the game against Wake Forest.
Combat penalties, as Doeren calls them — a borderline pass interference, a slightly-late hit — are one thing. But illegal formations, false starts, offsides and a costly roughing the kicker penalty? Those can’t happen.
“As a team, it’s just not putting ourselves in a position where we’re not having to beat N.C. State and our opponent, which we did (on Saturday),” Doeren said.
And for perhaps the first time this season, the penalties against Wake Forest (eight for 74 yards) were almost evenly distributed between offense (four) and defense (three), with one going on special teams.
N.C. State’s opponents have been handed 12 first downs via penalty (out of 98 first downs total), and of the 16 scoring drives allowed to opponents, six have been aided by N.C. State defensive penalties (including two against Wake Forest).
“Penalties, it’s a big deal,” defensive end Art Norman said. “It’s hard playing when every time you get something going, you come back 15 yards or five yards. It’s not even about the yards. It’s a momentum-killer as well, and it kills the momentum slowly but surely.”
The N.C. State offense wasn’t hurting itself as much with penalties until recently. In the first two games, the offense committed a total of three penalties for 25 yards. In the last three, though? Thirteen for 74. Just the last two ACC games alone (Clemson, Wake Forest), N.C. State was called for 11 penalties for 64 yards.
That might not seem like much. But when seven of those came against Clemson (including five false starts) in an upset bid at home, it seems more significant. N.C. State had Clemson on the ropes and couldn’t afford to make mistakes.
“Penalties, especially the penalties we’ve been getting, the pre-snap, post-snap penalties, that’s just mental,” fullback Ryan Cheek said. “Just focus in, have your hand down or know where to line up, having the right number of guys on the ball, and then post-snap stuff, there’s no excuse for post-snap penalties. That’s just not being smart.”
In all, 16 of the 38 N.C. State penalties have been procedural.
Some of that will correct itself over time — this is a young N.C. State team, after all — but it’s one of the few things that’s in this team’s control, which is part of what makes it frustrating for Doeren. The offense is doing all it conceivably can right now without starting quarterback Brandon Mitchell (who could return this week). The defense that shows up on Saturday when Syracuse comes to town has to be the defense that showed up against Clemson. If it isn’t, N.C. State likely won’t have enough firepower to put up enough points.
That’s especially true if the Wolfpack keep committing penalties and making other mistakes.
N.C. State is excited to be back in front of its home crowd, but the team also knows that it has to start playing better regardless of where the games are. And the team needs a win, badly.
“This Saturday is real important, for the season and as a team in general, for the program,” Cheek said. “We can’t have (three) conference losses in a row, especially with this week being at home. It’s a really big game for us.”
Doeren selects a different theme for each game week, and this week — after some talk about guys buying in enough to win a key road game — the theme is loyalty. Pictures on the wall around the facility depict U.S. soldiers running off of the boats off the coast of Normandy on D-Day.
“It’s saying you’ve got to be all in,” Cheek said of the message, “and that’s true this week. Coming off a loss, who’s going to try to jump ship, start pointing fingers and things like that? We’ve just got to all come together this week.”