RALEIGH — It would be easy for N.C. State defensive coordinator Mike Archer to be bitter.
A year ago, when the Wolfpack defense gave up the second-most points in the ACC, Archer was the second-most criticized person in the athletic department.
Lee Fowler, the athletic director who departed this summer, was the only person taking more heat on Internet message boards devoted to N.C. State sports.
Now a dramatic improvement in the Wolfpack defense has the team in position to get to the ACC football championship game with one more win.
N.C. State (8-3, 5-2 ACC) is giving up 21.1 points per game, 10.1 points fewer than last season's average, as it prepares to visit Maryland (7-4, 4-3) on Saturday (3:30 p.m., ESPN2).
However, Archer has not collected a lot of praise from outside the program. The perception has been that Jon Tenuta, the highly regarded linebackers coach who joined N.C. State's staff after last season, deserves much of the credit for the pressure schemes that have helped N.C. State strengthen its defense.
But Archer doesn't mind a bit. He's just glad to be winning.
"I'm happy for these kids," Archer said. "They endured it last year. They had to deal with it. I've dealt with it before. ... It's this business."
Archer feels fortunate to be in the business, and not just because Wolfpack coach Tom O'Brien didn't cave in to the pressure from fans who were unhappy with Archer last season.
Archer and his wife, Barbara, were returning to Raleigh from his son's wedding last summer when his car was rear-ended in West Virginia.
According to Archer, another driver didn't see that traffic had stopped because of construction. The impact drove Archer's car underneath the rear of a tractor-trailer truck.
Beneath the truck, in a sea of shattered glass, Archer reached for his wife to make sure she was OK. Then he ran his hand over his own body to make sure he was in one piece.
Rescue workers needed to use the Jaws of Life to extract Archer and his wife from the wreck. They were briefly hospitalized, but incredibly, they were OK.
Archer, 57, was affected by this brush with his mortality and that of others in the N.C. State program. Linebacker Nate Irving, the team's best defensive player, had survived his own horrible car crash the year before.
Offensive coordinator Dana Bible is in remission after a bout with cancer. For a while, Archer had trouble sleeping as he thought about it.
In time his anxiety waned, but he said the crash has changed his life. He said he doesn't get upset as easily now when something goes wrong.
"My life and my wife's life passed before me in a split second there in West Virginia," he said, "and I haven't forgotten that."
On the field, N.C. State's defense has been completely different from a year ago.
O'Brien said last year's struggles were the result of injuries to Irving and others that left the Wolfpack woefully inexperienced. Virtually every week, N.C. State started a different lineup.
"[Archer] had no chance last year with the amount of injuries and young kids and walk-ons to play defense in this conference the way it has to be played," O'Brien said.
This season, though, has been a welcome relief. Irving has returned to lead the defense with 19 tackles for loss, tops among the linebackers in the NCAA's Football Bowl Subdivision.
Defensive backs who were called upon to play before they were ready as freshmen or redshirt freshmen last season - Earl Wolff, Brandan Bishop and C.J. Wilson - have improved because of their experience.
And Tenuta has been a welcome addition. He and Archer have traced their roots back to a common influence, former LSU coach Bill Arnsparger. Tenuta's zone blitz schemes have fit in well in the system initiated by Archer, who coached plenty of zone blitzes as an assistant with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"It's been a blessing," Archer said.
The pressure created by those zone blitzes has helped push N.C. State to second in the ACC with 37 sacks, even though no Wolfpack player has more than five sacks.
In other words, the pressure can come from anyone and anywhere, as North Carolina's T.J. Yates found out last week when he was sacked seven times. And when opponents get to third down, the Wolfpack defense usually gets off the field a play later.
N.C. State leads the ACC in third-down defensive conversion percentage, with opponents converting just 31.8 percent.
Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that Archer's friends tell him how much better he looks than a year ago. As his defense struggled, he lost 20 pounds last season.
Archer said if he were a younger coach trying to advance to some other hot job, he might worry about who gets the credit. But he has been a head coach [at LSU] and worked in the NFL, and he just wants to win.
"We all suffered [last season]," Archer said. "Players and coaches both. I don't care who gets the credit. I'm past that stage."
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