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Better from N.C. State, with plenty of room to improve

NC State’s Larrell Murchison sacks Virginia

Watch a time-lapse as N.C. State defensive tackle Larrell Murchison sacks Virginia quarterback Bryce Perkins during the Wolfpack's victory at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, N.C. Saturday, Sept. 29, 2018. Murchison had three sacks in the game.
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Watch a time-lapse as N.C. State defensive tackle Larrell Murchison sacks Virginia quarterback Bryce Perkins during the Wolfpack's victory at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, N.C. Saturday, Sept. 29, 2018. Murchison had three sacks in the game.

Another week that saw N.C. State got incrementally better, even if there’s a long way to go. Another weekend when Dave Doeren will be fully rested, thanks to a kicking game that doesn’t induce insomnia. And another week ahead when the Wolfpack will be tested a little more, and have to raise its game accordingly.

Four games in, N.C. State remains undefeated and now 1-0 in the ACC after Saturday’s 35-21 win over Virginia, a performance that was something less than perfect but still more than adequate, and better than the week before. Which was better than the week before. Which was better than the week before that.

For reasons center Garrett Bradbury could not explain, N.C. State opened the season uptight, worried, preoccupied – perhaps more afraid of stumbling against low-level opposition than enjoying the moment. And now?

“We’re having a lot more fun out there, that’s the biggest thing,” Bradbury said.

Bradbury took umbrage with suggestions that Ryan Finley, despite his gaudy 22-for-32 line and 257 yards, was something less than his best, but there’s no question Finley threw more than a few jump balls into coverage in the first half, and was fortunate to have the emerging Emeka Emezie on the other end outfighting, in some cases, multiple defenders. But Finley’s fourth-quarter touchdown pass, his third of the day, was also a pure NFL throw to Kelvin Harmon’s back shoulder, pro to pro.

Watch a time-lapse as NC State's Kelvin Harmon makes a 16-yard touchdown reception in the Wolfpack's victory over Virginia at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, Sept. 29, 2018. It is Harmon's first touchdown of 2018.

The defense had a chance to lock down the game in the third quarter but couldn’t keep hold of Virginia quarterback Bryce Perkins and had a few untimely penalties, while the hands team was fooled by clever misdirection on a Cavaliers onside kick.

So there will be, as Bradbury suspected, some things to talk about Monday. But there were examples of areas where the Wolfpack has shown progress, like a more effective running game due to Ricky Person’s improving health, also an example of an area where there’s a lot of room for more progress.

And N.C. State will need to make progress. Thanks to the West Virginia game getting wiped out by Hurricane Florence, the Wolfpack’s season has progressed at an increasing degree of difficulty, a process that will continue over the next four weeks until it’s a long way from where it has been.

Boston College, a Wolfpack bogeyman even in years when the Eagles are bad, which is not the case this season, comes to Carter-Finley next Saturday. Given N.C. State’s history against that program, that will be a mental test as much as a football one. And then, two weeks after that, a trip to Clemson that will test the Wolfpack’s Atlantic Division aspirations.

It’s out there for N.C. State, there’s no question about that, especially if Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who was knocked out of Saturday’s win over Syracuse with a suspected concussion, misses an extended period of time. Whatever happens against Clemson, N.C. State will have to regroup quickly for a visit to Syracuse and the Orange’s explosive offense.

NC State coach Dave Doeren talks about the Wolfpack's victory over Virginia, the importance of playing at home and the play of Ricky Person Saturday, Sept. 29, 2018.

The final stretch – home games against Florida State and Wake Forest and road games against Louisville and North Carolina – certainly seems to lean in N.C. State’s favor at the moment, even if the Wolfpack has to play four of its final five on the road, and even if winning the games it’s supposed to win has never been a historic strength of this program. That’s one thing this particular team has done well so far.

It’s possible the team feels less pressure for one simple reason above many others. The reliable kicking of freshman Chris Dunn – who connected from 34 and 44 yards Saturday, his two longest in an 8-for-10 season – is perhaps the biggest difference between this team and its predecessors. Dunn’s leg is helping Doeren sleep better. Seriously.

“Yeah, seriously,” Doeren said. “Two years. It’s been hard.”

There is a lot of room for N.C. State to get better. And the Wolfpack will have to, with tougher tests ahead. The ceiling, for N.C. State and its season, remains high.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock
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