The devil might be in the details, but so is the key to winning college football games.
Media and fans, alike, usually get caught up in the big picture, but coaches are paid to pay attention to the details.
N.C. State coach Dave Doeren talked about the “little things” this week as his Wolfpack team seeks its first ACC win in 13 tries, at Syracuse.
It was a familiar refrain to what North Carolina coach Larry Fedora was talking about after the Tar Heels’ 34-17 loss to Virginia Tech on Oct. 4.
Little things add up to big wins. Take UNC’s 28-27 comeback at Virginia last Saturday. Down 27-21 late in the fourth quarter, the Tar Heels faced third-and-10 from the Virginia 38.
Virginia defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta, as he’s apt to do, sent the kitchen sink, the bathroom sink and laundry room sink at UNC quarterback Marquise Williams. The blitz didn’t quite work because backup center Arien Smith gave Williams an extra second to find a relatively wide open Ryan Switzer near the UNC sideline for a 27-yard gain.
The touchdown three plays later proved to be the game-winning points, and Fedora’s gamble with the onside kick helped, too, but none of those bigger plays/decisions have the same meaning without the “little,” unrecognized contribution from Smith, who was only in the game as a sub for the injured starter.
By the way, since Fedora was seemingly lost at sea with his “little things” press conference, the Tar Heels came within a touchdown of winning at Notre Dame and have outlasted Georgia Tech and Virginia.
The little things have thus far eluded N.C. State in ACC play. The Wolfpack could not hold a 24-7 lead against Florida State on Sept. 27. A missed open-field tackle on a 40-yard catch and run by FSU receiver Travis Rudolph, after N.C. State went up 38-28, was a key play in the Seminoles’ comeback and 56-41 win.
There weren’t enough little things in a 41-0 loss to Clemson on Oct. 4 to add up to respectability for N.C. State but that has been the outlier this season.
In a 30-14 loss to Boston College on Oct. 11, Doeren spent a week warning his defense about Boston College receiver Sherman Alston. Then on Alston’s first touch, an end around, the defense was caught out of position on a 24-yard touchdown.
In a 30-18 loss at Louisville on Oct. 18, there were two smaller miscues that turned out to be the difference in the game.
After Louisville scored on its first drive of the game, N.C. State moved the ball down to the Cardinals’ 26.
On third-and-2, receiver Marques Valdes-Scantling dropped a slant pass from quarterback Jacoby Brissett that would have moved the chains. Then the Louisville defense stopped N.C. State on fourth down.
Early in the fourth quarter, with N.C. State down 20-9, the Wolfpack had five plays from inside the Louisville 10 and couldn’t find the end zone. The most frustrating play for Doeren was failed “jump pass” by running back Matt Dayes on third down from the 2.
N.C. State has been setting up that play, a pass by the running back out of what they call the “wolf” formation, since the season opener.
After eight weeks, and dozens of running plays out of the formation, Doeren was finally ready to throw the ball (a la Tim Tebow, who made the play famous at Florida in the mid-2000s) and Louisville created too much pressure for Dayes to find his target.
“We’ve been running that since fall camp started,” Doeren said. “It’s a really tough play to stop, particularly when we’ve never thrown a pass from the ‘wolf.’ ”
A facemask penalty voided the sack and gave the Wolfpack a fresh set of chances from the 1, but the offense still couldn’t convert.
“I see a lot of little things within that game that’s showing our progress,” Doeren said of the Louisville loss.
Progress is one thing, wins are another. Doeren could use a dose of both down the stretch with a very favorable schedule over the final four games.