RALEIGH — Dave Doeren would rather be spending his birthday getting ready for a bowl game. Instead the N.C. State coach has already begun the process of preparing for next season.
Doeren’s first season at N.C. State did not go the way he had hoped or planned. A 3-9 record with an 0-8 ACC finish wasn’t what he had in mind when he left Northern Illinois 12 months ago.
Doeren, who turns 42 on Tuesday, expected challenges in his first season – he had the fewest returning starters in the ACC and a thin margin for error on the depth chart – but he didn’t expect the school’s first winless season in the ACC since 1959.
Injuries, a lack of depth, untimely mistakes and growing pains all contributed to the Wolfpack’s miserable finish. Despite the first-year setback, Doeren, who went 23-4 in two seasons at NIU (they are 12-0 this season) and previously helped build Kansas into a national contender, remains confident in his ability to build the Wolfpack into a winner.
“I’m going to spend every day in the offseason trying to make it right,” Doeren said. “It starts with me and my staff and the development of our team. I look forward to that process.”
Part of the evaluation process of the 2013 season, Doeren said, will be going over every play from every game.
Doeren will probably pause at the game-changing play, if not season-changing play, from the third quarter of N.C. State’s 26-14 loss to Clemson on Sept. 19.
One play didn’t break N.C. State’s season and neither Doeren nor any of N.C. State players are suggesting that is the case, but it’s impossible not to wonder how the season would have been different if receiver Bryan Underwood had not been ruled out of bounds on an apparent 83-yard touchdown run that would have given the Wolfpack the chance to take a 14-13 lead over the then No. 3-ranked Tigers.
“That play would have helped, that was one of many,” Doeren said. “There’s a lot of things that happened this year that didn’t go our way. As a team, you have to make those plays go your way more often.
“As a coaching staff, it’s your job to get them as many of those plays as you can.
N.C. State’s effort against the Tigers was its best of the season. In front of a jubilant home crowd, on a Thursday night against top 10 opponent, N.C. State had won similar big games in each of the previous two seasons.
The Wolfpack was in position, down 13-7 at 7:31 in the third quarter, to make a confidence-building run. Underwood broke down the right sideline and didn’t stop until he got to the end zone. Instead, of a game-changing touchdown, Underwood was ruled out of bounds at the Clemson 47-yard line.
The Tigers forced a turnover shortly after and took control of the game with a quick touchdown and won 26-14.
“You never want it to come down to one play, but going into that Clemson game, beating a ranked team that might have pole-vaulted us to winning a couple of more games,” sophomore cornerback Juston Burris said. “But you never want to put it on one play.”
Eight straight losses
N.C. State couldn’t duplicate the energy or passion it had in that Clemson game. It won the two games (over Louisiana Tech and Richmond) before the Clemson game but only one more (against Central Michigan) after.
The season ended with eight straight losses, which also hadn’t happened since 1959. Doeren said the biggest deficiency was on offense with too many interceptions.
N.C. State finished the season 98th (22.8 points per game) in scoring offense and 70th (403.5 yards per game) in total offense. The 15 interceptions thrown ranked 101st in the country (Duke’s quarterbacks threw the same number).
Doeren knew there would be a difficult transition from last year’s quarterback Mike Glennon, now the starter for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and with a new offense.
The coach added Florida transfer Jacoby Brissett in January, as the quarterback of the future. Brissett, a top 100 recruit out of high school in 2011, was ineligible this season under NCAA transfer rules.
After getting Brissett, Doeren added Arkansas graduate Brandon Mitchell in hopes of finding a stop-gap between Glennon and Brissett.
Mitchell, who was a backup at Arkansas for two years and a receiver in 2012, won the job in August but got hurt on the third series of the season.
He broke a bone in his left foot and missed five games. The Pack went 2-3 without him, losing critical ACC games to Wake Forest and Syracuse.
When Mitchell got back, it was too late to build on the energy and confidence from his brief performance in the opener, a 40-14 win over a Louisiana Tech.
Junior Pete Thomas, who had transferred from Colorado State the year before, started for Mitchell in six games. The two finished the season with 11 touchdowns and 15 interceptions combined.
Mitchell, who missed the 38-21 loss at Boston College on Nov. 16 with a second foot injury, closed the season with six touchdowns and no interceptions in the final two games.
It was too late. N.C. State lost both of those games, largely because of defensive deficiencies, including tackling problems.
“If we throw more touchdowns than interceptions, a lot of these things wouldn’t be in the conversation,” Doeren said before the Maryland game, a 41-21 home loss.
“There have been some games when we’ve tackled better than anyone in the country and there are some where we haven’t.”
Depth, specifically with the offensive line and defensive secondary, was a major concern for Doeren when he was hired. N.C. State lost a large senior class from its 7-6 team in 2012 under former coach Tom O’Brien.
There were just four starters back on each side of the ball. One on offense, fullback Logan Winkles, blew out his knee in training camp.
The injuries didn’t stop there. Senior left tackle Rob Crisp, the best lineman in the program, suffered a concussion in practice the week after the Richmond game on Sept. 7. Crisp missed the final 10 games of the season.
On defense, senior safety Jarvis Byrd was one of the best tacklers through the first four games. His best game, against Clemson, coincided with the defense’s best game of the season.
Byrd suffered a major knee injury in the first half of N.C. State’s 28-13 loss at Wake Forest on Oct. 5 and missed the final seven games. His absence was particularly notable in the Boston College loss, as running back Andre Williams pounded the Wolfpack defense for an ACC-record 339 yards.
N.C. State gave up at least 38 points in five of the final six games of the season and finished 82nd in the country in scoring defense (30.2 points per game) and 63rd in total defense (399.4 yards per game).
Improving the talent
The solution, Doeren said, is an upgrade in talent, both in quantity and quality. He’s recruiting this week and the next on the Class of 2014, his first full class. Rivals currently ranks the class, which has 24 commitments, 28th in the country.
There were a handful of newcomers who played well this season, notably junior center Quinton Schooley and freshman cornerback Jack Tocho, which encouraged Doeren about the prospects for building for next season.
He also said the group of 20 players that redshirted this season will improve the program’s depth.
“It might be young in some places, but I know it will improve in a lot of positions,” Doeren said.
The only thing to be gained from this season is motivation. As Burris put it, “Losing is never fun.” The way to change the end result, he said, is with work in the offseason.
“We need to improve everywhere,” Burris said. “We need to have that mindset in the offseason that we’re coming to work and we’re going to improve every day.”