Dave Doeren always was consistent in his explanation of N.C. State’s early success this season.
After a 3-9 finish in 2013, the Wolfpack started 4-0. After every game, the second-year coach was asked a variation of the same question: What’s the difference between this year and last?
“Well, we have a quarterback this year,” Doeren said after the 49-17 win at South Florida on Sept. 13.
As N.C. State (4-4) enters the most important game of the season, Saturday at Syracuse, and the most important stretch of its schedule, the Wolfpack needs junior quarterback Jacoby Brissett to regain his early-season form.
Brissett, a transfer from Florida, started the season with confidence and accuracy and led the Wolfpack to a 4-1 start. Even in the loss, 56-41 to then-No. 1 Florida State, Brissett put up impressive numbers (a career-high 359 passing yards with three touchdowns).
But since the Florida State loss Sept. 27, the Wolfpack has struggled, losing the subsequent three ACC games, and so has Brissett.
In the past three conference games, Brissett has completed 45 percent of his passes (36 of 80), averaged 144 yards per game and thrown just three touchdown passes. He also has turned the ball over five times (two interceptions, three fumbles) in the losses to Clemson, Boston College and Louisville.
In the first five games, Brissett completed 68.8 percent (115 of 167) of his passes, averaged 272.8 yards per game and had 13 touchdowns to three turnovers (one interception, two fumbles).
“I just have to make more plays,” Brissett said after the 30-18 loss at Louisville on Oct. 18.
The problems aren’t all on Brissett. The offensive line struggled without left guard Joe Thuney, who missed four games with an illness before coming back against Louisville.
The ground game (128 yards) improved against Louisville, with Thuney’s return, which also helped Brissett put up his best numbers since the Florida State loss (223 yards, two touchdowns and one turnover – which came on the last play on a meaningless Hail Mary attempt).
Doeren also pointed out the quality of defenses in the past three games – all three teams rank among the top 15 in the country in scoring defense – has been a step up from the first five games.
Doeren said he still believes in Brissett.
“I think he has been the same player,” Doeren said. “He hasn’t been as productive.”
Brissett improved his “game-management type” decision-making in the loss at Louisville, Doeren said. He needs to resist the urge to try to win the game on every play, Doeren said.
Brissett’s 8-yard touchdown pass to Johnathan Alston in the second quarter of the Florida State game has been the play of the season for the Wolfpack. Brissett ducked under one defender and then stiff-armed another on a 20-yard rollout across the field to find Alston in the back of the end zone.
It was a spectacular play but also one Brissett has been chasing since, instead of at times, taking the easier play.
“I think that’s what he’s learning as the season goes on is that every play doesn’t have to be the play that he made in the Florida State game,” Doeren said.
“That’s a play that you can make, but we don’t need that play every play.”