Four Downs: Wolfpack lucky to survive Richmond

RALEIGH, N.C. — N.C. State is still a work in progress, and Richmond is as good an FCS team as you’lll find. But the last thing Dave Doeren needed in his second game as head coach was a home loss to an FCS team.

The Wolfpack collected a go-ahead field goal from Niklas Sade with 33 seconds left to eke out a 23-21 win, bringing N.C. State back from a 21-10 first-half deficit.

It wasn’t pretty, but it was a win, and N.C. State will certainly take it.

1. Turnovers and penalties, oh my!

The Wolfpack outgained Richmond 444-322, but had four turnovers in Spiders territory. Three of the turnovers came in the second half, after the defense had seemingly clamped down and taken control of the game.

And all but one of the turnovers came in field goal range, so the Wolfpack arguably cost themselves nine points.

N.C. State cut the Richmond lead to 21-13 at half, and a touchdown midway through the third made it 21-20. Why go for two when there was plenty of time left? Well, how was anyone to know N.C. State would turn it over on two of its final four possessions after that?

The defense did its job, holding Richmond scoreless in the second half. It was on the offense to take better care of the ball and take advantage of opportunities.

But the defense wasn’t blameless. Their lack of discipline put them in a position to make a comeback. The ‘Pack committed 10 penalties for 89 yards, including three personal fouls on the defense.

These unforced mistakes cost N.C. State valuable field position or a potential stop, or both. In the first half in particular, N.C. State was flagged for roughing the passer three times (one was declined in favor of pass interference). Richmond scored touchdowns on both drives where roughing was flagged.

“I challenged our defensive line and guys in the locker room (at halftime). I just said, ‘Quit complaining about roughing the quarterback penalties and start sacking him before he throws it.’ We were one step away,’ Doeren said.
The only hope an FCS team — one with less depth and talent — has of beating an FBS team on the road, generally, is if that team makes a lot of mistakes.

The N.C. State offensive turnovers didn’t necessarily lead to Richmond points. But the silly penalties committed by the defense often did. And against a better team, it will be far more punitive. 

2. If the N.C. State defense plays like it has the first two weeks, Clemson will put up a ton of points on Sept. 19 in Raleigh

Penalties weren’t the only problem for the defense this week, but an issue nonetheless. Last week against Louisiana Tech, it was bad tackling.

This time, it was more halftime adjustments, simplifying the schemes and just calming down. In the first half, Richmond had 237 yards on 36 plays, scoring three touchdowns on six drives (one drive was a kneel down at the end of the half).

In the second half, N.C. State held Richmond to 85 yards on 34 plays, forcing two turnovers and allowing no points on seven drives. 

“(Defensive coordinator Dave) Huxtable I thought did a nice job calling a very simple plan in the second half. I don’t think we did a lot. We ran a couple zone pressures and played base defense,” Doeren said. “A lot of times when you’re down at halftime, it’s more about just being calm. You don’t have to go crazy in there. 
“(The defense) knew that they could play better. (Huxtable) did a nice job I think just settling them down. The D-line did get better pressure. We had tighter coverage. First half — shoot, we’re all over some guys and he throws the ball right on the outside shoulder, great throw and catch on two of their deep balls.

“It’s not like you could look out there and say they had guys wide open. They just did a nice job throwing and catching on us in the first half.”

And Richmond quarterback Michael Strauss was indeed excellent, finishing at 29-of-45 for 300 yards and two touchdowns. Both sacks — and, seemingly, most of the times he was hit and hurried — occurred in the second half.

Strauss also fumbled twice in the second half, losing both. N.C. State was still trailing 21-20 when quarterback Pete Thomas threw an interception with 3:04 to go, but the defense was ready.

Four plays later, the offense was back on the field. “We’ve got to go get them. That was the mindset,” defensive end Art Norman said. “We’ve got to get it back — get a turnover, get a stop, get the offense back on the field. That’s what the mindset was.”

But if it takes N.C. State a half to adjust to Tajh Boyd, Clemson will be up a lot more than 21-10 at halftime. 
3. The Pete Thomas/Bryant Shirreffs QB combo showed some improvement, in spite of some mistakes

Thomas rebounded nicely from throwing an interception with three minutes to go by leading what was, ostensibly, the game-winning field goal drive. He completed 4 of 5 passes for 32 yards on that drive and drew a pass interference call, as well.

Thomas only had two incompletions in the second half, and both were interceptions. He finished 24 of 31 for 237 yards, but the interceptions were head-scratching decisions. He also had nine rushes for 49 yards, which is key in this N.C. State offense. 

While Thomas showed mobility that he didn’t show last week, Shirreffs — who didn’t attempt a pass last week — showed he could pass, completing all three passes for 19 yards and a touchdown (N.C. State’s first and only passing TD of the season).

Pretty good for a guy that was switched to linebacker, then fullback late in camp, only to return to the quarterbacks late last week. 

“I still have some things I need to work on,” Shirreffs said. “I still need to work on flexibility, but I’m happy we got a couple throws in. I don’t think the defense was ready for it.”
He had a 28-yard touchdown run as well and finished with 46 yards on four carries. But he lost a fumble, meaning N.C. State’s quarterbacks combined for three turnovers. And his lost fumble was the one that stuck out in his mind after the game.

“I feel like I let my team down because I fumbled in the red zone in a key moment,” Shirreffs said. “I’m just really relieved we got the win.”

4. Niklas Sade could be the reason N.C. State goes bowling this year

The Wolfpack has a lot of growing to do, but their schedule is very manageable with eight home games. And a lot of games — like Duke and Wake Forest on the road and hosting North Carolina — could be close.

And at least N.C. State has a kicker that will make clutch kicks. And Sade saved the day against Richmond, hitting a 48-yarder with 33 seconds left — his third field goal of the game and sixth of the season (he has yet to miss). And he has 27 of N.C. State’s 63 points this season. 

He made the game-winning field goal at Maryland last year, and a game-tying field goal against Miami. He’s been there before in his career, and the junior is ready to make the leap from good kicker to great. He made just 13 of 23 field goals last year (56.5%) and was disappointed in his performance. 
“Last season for me was embarrassing. It was a terrible season. I wanted to be more accountable for my team. I left too many points off the scoreboard the entire season,” Sade said. “So this offseason, I worked really hard…so that when the season came around, I could be the most accountable player on the team from my position.” 
In the offseason, Doeren and his staff had Sade try to make five field goals with the entire team standing around him, screaming all kinds of unrepeatable things at him to try to distract him. It didn’t work.

“We had about 105 guys lined up around him yelling at him every swear word probably known to man to see if he could kick under pressure and he nailed five in a row there, so I knew we had a chance,” Doeren said.

“Everyone would get around us, behind us and whatever they wanted to say, they could say,” Sade said with a grin. “There’s some stuff I won’t repeat, pretty funny stuff, but it was just everyone in my face. They were standing in front of me, trying to make me uncomfortable. You’ve got to stay focused in those situations. It was a fun exercise.”
It paid off, giving him a moment of glory that often eludes a kicker. They’re usually just the goat.  As his teammates mobbed him in celebration, though, he was the hero. “It’s unexplainable. I can’t explain it,” Sade said. “There’s so much joy. To see all your teammates jumping around, it’s just the greatest feeling.”