North Carolina State football coach Tom O’Brien said in August this was his best team in six seasons in Raleigh.
Relative youth at receiver and inexperience and depth questions at linebacker were really the only considerable concerns surrounding the Wolfpack as fall camp opened. This looked to be the season N.C. State would reach 10 victories for the second time in school history and firmly entrench O’Brien as the program’s leader now and into the future.
Fast forward three months and it hasn’t exactly turned out as planned.
Following Saturday’s surprising 33-6 home loss to Virginia, the Wolfpack stand at 5-4 overall and 2-3 in the ACC. Keep in mind, three of the wins came by a total of six points over Connecticut, Florida State and at Maryland, which missed a chip-shot field goal in the closing seconds. That happened to be O’Brien’s first road win over a team in the Atlantic Division. Period.
N.C. State is oh-so-close to a bowl-eligibility danger zone.
“We only play 12 games,” O’Brien said. “Seventy-five percent of the season is down, we’ve got 25 percent left, so we better get going and get ourselves ready to play great football.”
Just two weeks ago, the Wolfpack were boasting about five consecutive wins over despised rival North Carolina days before venturing to Chapel Hill, fully expecting to move that streak to six games. But 76 points and 1,016 yards allowed later, N.C. State suddenly appears more like a rudderless boat than a program full of veteran players on a mission.
Finally falling to the talented Tar Heels is one thing, but it’s another to get completely manhandled by the Cavaliers, who entered the contest on a six-game losing streak. In fact, Virginia had lost eight of its previous nine contests versus FBS programs with the lone victory by a single point in September over a Penn State club that missed four field goals.
The Cavaliers had a week off to prepare for the Wolfpack, but that shouldn’t have mattered. N.C. State’s players said last week they were ticked off about losing to North Carolina, especially in the manner they lost: Giovani Bernard returned a punt 74 yards with 13 seconds left to give UNC the victory.
Or was it a simple matter of a Tar Heel hangover?
“I didn’t get any indication at practice this week that last week was a factor in getting ready to play this game,” O’Brien said Saturday. “Could it have been? I don’t know. Tough loss last week. One thing we always do stress is don’t let a team beat you two weeks in a row, and if that’s the case then that’s the case.”
That might be understandable if a puzzlingly bad performance was a one-time occurrence, but it has happened several times under O’Brien. The season finale in 2007 pitted N.C. State versus Maryland. Both teams needed a win to go bowling, but the Terrapins left Carter-Finley with a 37-0 romp.
In 2010, a 5-1 N.C. State squad followed a huge win over Boston College with a surprising 33-27 loss at East Carolina. A season earlier, a 3-2 ‘Pack team was rocked 49-28 at home by a Duke outfit that scored more than 28 points against an FBS team just two other times that season. The residual effect of that defeat lasted the rest of the season and the Wolfpack failed to reach a bowl game.
Of course, there have been the well-documented slow starts and puzzling early season losses, like at home to Central Florida, and routs by South Florida, South Carolina and Cincinnati.
N.C. State faces a new challenge now. Its original goals have been dashed, and now the Wolfpack must find something new to play for. It begins within, though.
When N.C. State plays with focus it plays well. When not, it loses.
In its four defeats, the Wolfpack have given up 84 first-quarter points and overall have turned over the football 19 times. In its five victories, N.C. State has allowed just 13 points in the opening period and overall turned over the ball four times.
“We do the right thing, as we’ve shown, we can be a good football team and we can win,” O’Brien said. “But we have to be (clicking) on all cylinders and not shooting ourselves in the foot.”
With a home game versus Wake Forest coming up this week followed by a trip to Clemson, difficult tasks remain. Even the season finale versus BC may not be a breeze, especially if the Wolfpack are still fighting for postseason viability.