There’s no excuse for giving up almost 100 points in two college football games.
At least not any good ones, so Airius Moore didn’t try to make any. Shortly after N.C. State lost the Belk Bowl to Mississippi State 51-28 at the end of December, the junior linebacker had an idea.
Moore, the team’s leading tackler a year ago, sent out a group text, short on details, to his defensive teammates. They all showed up the next morning at the Murphy Center.
And there N.C. State’s defense watched film together. Not with any coaches and not the good plays that helped the Wolfpack statistically improve in every meaningful defensive category last season.
They watched the bad plays. The touchdowns from the embarrassing bowl loss, the scores from the disastrous first quarter in a 45-34 loss to North Carolina in the regular-season finale. The lapses that saw a close game with ACC champion Clemson turn into a 56-41 loss.
There was no finger-pointing and no complaining. There is nowhere to hide in the film room and no one tried to, Moore said.
“We wanted to sit there and confront it and get better from it,” Moore said. “There was a realization that we can’t let this happen if we want to be as good as we want to be.”
25.8 Points allowed per game last season
147 Rushing yards allowed per game last season
203.2 Passing yards allowed per game last season
It was a chance, Moore said, for the players to take ownership of the defense. Seven players who started in the bowl game are penciled in to start in Thursday’s opener against William & Mary.
The other four players started at least two games last season and junior cornerback Mike Stevens started eight games.
So there was a value in looking back before going forward, senior cornerback Jack Tocho said.
“It was a much-needed reality check,” Tocho said. “It was a humbling experience, too. Everybody knows what they’re good at but nobody wants to talk about what they’re bad at.”
Fewer points, fewer yards
N.C. State’s defense wasn’t as bad last year as its last two performances. The Wolfpack gave up fewer points (25.8), fewer rushing yards (147), slightly fewer passing yards (203.2) and caused more turnovers (22) in 2015 than it did in 2014.
It jumped from No. 47 in the country to No. 29 in total defense and improved from No. 66 in scoring defense to No. 51.
“There were times, in my opinion, we played really good defense and then all of the sudden we’d give up a big play,” N.C. State defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable said.
N.C. State allowed 38 plays of 30 yards or more from scrimmage. That ranked last in the ACC and only four Power 5 teams gave up more on the season.
N.C. State coach Dave Doeren, whose background is on the defensive side of the ball, believes the problems are correctable. Doeren made staff changes on offense, in order to be “different,” but kept Huxtable and the defensive staff in place.
It’s very simple: big plays occur when you don’t leverage the ball, when you don’t tackle well or have good pursuit.
N.C. State coach Dave Doeren
There was no need to start over with a new scheme with so many players back in place and with a relatively easy fix for the big plays.
(Not to mention that the 2017 season sets up to be even stronger on defense with only two seniors in the lineup.)
“It’s very simple: Big plays occur when you don’t leverage the ball, when you don’t tackle well or have good pursuit,” Doeren said. “There was a combination of those things (last year).
“When you have eight new starters, like we did last year, some of that is expected. We’ve worked really hard on those areas.”
It’s easy to say, “We’re better,” before the first snap of the season but there’s reason to hope that could be true.
N.C. State has to replace defensive end Mike Rose, who was fourth in the ACC with 10.5 sacks, and cornerback Juston Burris, a fourth-round pick of the New York Jets, but the defensive front will be among the best in the ACC.
Junior defensive end Bradley Chubb, who had 5.5 sacks last season, has a chance to pick up some of Rose’s sack numbers.
Moore and junior linebacker Jerod Fernandez return in the middle for their third season together. The two have taken their lumps together, learning on the job, but there is a payoff in sight.
Huxtable, in his fourth season at N.C. State and 35th in college football, said part of the problem last season was missed assignments and part was lack of execution.
He took the blame for how his defense performed in the final two games.
“I’m not going to put that on the players,” Huxtable said. “We have to put that on us first as the coaches.”
But Chubb said if anything was learned from watching the horror show of mistakes back in January, it was accountability.
“Our coaches put us in position to make plays but, at the end of the day, it’s our team and we have to own the process,” Chubb said.
Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio