Adversity is N.C. State’s friend.
Dave Doeren understands this. Unfortunately, the only way to understand it is to have experience with it.
After a horrific loss to Wake Forest last week, Doeren knew he would get the best out of his players this week against Louisville.
“As a program, I feel like right now, when we have adversity we respond really well,” Doeren said. “When people don’t respect us, we respond really well. When people talk bad about us, we respond really well.”
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Doeren was right. N.C. State responded with a 52-10 win at Louisville on Saturday. It’s a Louisville team without an ACC win or a head coach but that’s neither here nor there. Saturday was about N.C. State. Last Thursday was, too, but N.C. State couldn’t handle that moment.
Experience, too often the painful variety like the 27-23 home loss to Wake Forest, has taught Doeren the deeper ethos to N.C. State’s high-profile programs. It doesn’t matter if it’s football, basketball or baseball: when you expect the most, you get the least.
“We still haven’t learned how to handle success,” Doeren said. “That’s the next thing in our program.”
Again, he’s right. N.C. State started 5-0 and then stumbled with losses to Clemson and Syracuse. The Wolfpack recovered to reach No. 14 in the College Football Playoff rankings, after a lopsided win over Florida State, and then came crashing down against Wake.
“The two games that we didn’t play the way I thought we could, Clemson and Wake, those were weeks when we were getting this,” Doeren said as he made a back-patting motion. “You know the ‘attaboys’ all week. That’s something I have to get better at helping them with, obviously as their head coach. Getting them to block the noise.”
Many, many N.C. State fans were despondent after the Wake Forest loss. The players were, too. Center Garrett Bradbury, a fifth-year senior, said he barely slept after the Wake loss.
“We underachieved that game, as a team across the board,” Bradbury said. “From my experience, that’s the worst kind of loss.”
But Bradbury said something different happened after this latest round of disappointment. Instead of dwelling on it, the players moved on.
“I think in the past, everyone was guilty of— even if you’re not meaning to — being like, listen, ‘Let’s not let this game affect the next game,’” Bradbury said. “Even saying stuff like that, means you’re still thinking about the last game. I think everyone did a really good job of just focusing on this week.”
Doeren told the team after the Wake loss: “Let’s own it and let’s fix it and don’t pout.” And that started on Tuesday with what Doeren called “our best practice of the year.”
N.C. State all but eliminated the mistakes from the Wake Forest loss: the dropped passes, the missed blocks, the red-zone deficiencies.
N.C. State had four obvious, costly drops against Wake Forest, three in the red zone. Those were almost all gone on Saturday. Receiver Kelvin Harmon had a drop on the first series but he quickly made up for it (with seven catches for 100 yards). Harmon, who was shut out of the end zone against Wake, had a 25-yard touchdown catch on Saturday.
It was the kind of isolation route, one-on-one on the outside, that had been missing in the Wake loss. That it happened on N.C. State’s first trip into Louisville territory wasn’t by accident.
N.C. State got inside the Louisville 20-yard line seven times and scored six touchdowns. Running back Reggie Gallaspy, who had only 36 yards on 14 carries against Wake, had 73 yards on 11 carries against Louisville, with a pair of touchdowns.
It also helped N.C. State was penalized only twice on Saturday, while the Cardinals were flagged 12 times, including four times for having too many men on the field.
N.C. State was poised. Louisville was a like a “Mad Libs” version of every bad football team. Insert penalty to wipe out a touchdown here. Insert missed kick or unnecessary personal foul here.
“We handled business today,” Bradbury said. “We just have to keep that same mindset going forward.”
It shouldn’t take adversity bring out the best in N.C. State but it does. Doeren understands this. That’s a start. It also means there’s hope he can fix it.