The alternative to playing in a bowl game actually could be worse.
“I just went home and lifted weights,” N.C. State defensive end Pharoah McKever said about the end of last season.
That was last year, but one long Christmas break was enough for N.C. State. The Wolfpack, thanks to a different kind of lift from McKever, will play Central Florida in the Bitcoin St. Petersburg (Fla.) Bowl on Friday night.
N.C. State’s season turned on McKever’s 82-yard interception return for a touchdown at Syracuse on Nov. 1. McKever sparked a new confidence in N.C. State’s defense, which in turn helped the Wolfpack win three of its final four regular-season games.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
The improved, more aggressive defense dominated North Carolina during a 35-7 road win on Nov. 29. That rivalry rout gave second-year coach Dave Doeren’s team seven wins, including three in the ACC, after going winless in the conference in 2013 and 3-9 overall.
Senior defensive end Art Norman, who redshirted his freshman season, said last year’s long winter served as motivation to get back in the postseason for the fourth time in five years. Norman said without McKever’s return TD against Syracuse, the team might be back at home instead of preparing for a bowl.
“We needed that big play,” Norman said. “That actually won the game for us and we just kind of went from there, rolling with confidence after that.”
Anatomy of a turnaround
McKever is not big on taking credit.
“I’m glad it helped,” said McKever, a converted high school quarterback, who played primarily at receiver while he redshirted last season. “I was just doing what they coached me to do.”
Safety Dravious Wright hustled and gave McKever a key block on the interception return, which McKever is quick to point out.
And it was defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable who called the “dog blitz,” which had Wright and linebacker Jerod Fernandez blitzing from the right side of the line and McKever dropping into coverage from his left defensive end spot.
“We ran that blitz in practice all week and I had a couple of picks,” McKever said. “We thought it had a chance to work in the game.”
N.C. State desperately needed it to work. The Wolfpack went into that game with a 4-4 record and on a 12-game losing streak in the ACC going back to 2013.
The Wolfpack trailed the Orange 14-9 with 3 minutes, 10 seconds left in the third quarter. Syracuse had the lead and was driving, with a first and 10 from the N.C. State 22-yard line.
Syracuse quarterback A.J. Long got the shotgun snap and dropped back to the 29-yard line. He tried to find receiver Sean Avant coming underneath from the left slot.
McKever had lined up to Long’s right and the freshman quarterback didn’t see him, even though McKever is 6-foot-6 and 237 pounds.
Long tried to lead Avant, who was at the 12-yard line. McKever was six yards in front, but jumped and grabbed the interception.
Wright, who had blitzed from the right edge, peeled off and sprinted down the field to escort McKever. Wright pushed Long at the Syracuse 20-yard line. Running back Adonis Ameen-Moore dove and got a finger tip on McKever’s cleat, but that was only time he was touched on the return.
N.C. State converted the 2-point conversion, took a 17-14 lead and then held on for a 24-17 victory after Syracuse recovered an onside kick with 17 seconds remaining.
More aggression, better results
The touchdown was proof of N.C State’s defensive improvement. The Wolfpack had played better at Louisville on Oct. 18 but lost 30-18.
A week earlier, during a 30-14 home loss to Boston College, Huxtable said he had started trying more blitz packages in the second half.
“We shifted gears,” Huxtable said. “We started to get a little bit more aggressive and getting after it a little more.”
It was too late to make a difference that week, which was a low point of the season. N.C. State was embarrassed by a 41-0 loss at Clemson on Oct. 4 but it had expected to compete with the Eagles.
Instead, Boston College rolled up 310 rushing yards – 132 from quarterback Tyler Murphy. Doeren compounded the loss by complaining after the game about not getting a “cabinet stocked of redshirt seniors.” He also lamented a lack of all-star candidates on the ACC “preseason list.”
“It’s a challenge, I mean every day, building this program is going to take time,” Doeren said during the postgame press conference.
“We all want microwaved results, me included. I know our fans do, I get it.”
Goal: More disruption
But from that Boston College loss, something changed with N.C. State’s defense and with Huxtable’s mentality.
In its first three ACC games, N.C. State’s defense gave up an average of 478.3 yards per game. Over the final five ACC games, the Wolfpack improved by more than 140 yards per game, allowing only 337.8 per game and fewer than 220 in the closing wins against Wake Forest and UNC.
“We just came out in our base defense and played straight up,” Norman said about the early season strategy. “As the season went along we put in more twists, stunts and blitzes.”
Pressure bursts pipes, as the saying goes, and N.C. State’s sacks and turnovers both jumped in the final five games.
In the first three ACC games, N.C. State’s defense had a total of five sacks and caused five turnovers. In the last five games, the Wolfpack produced 16 sacks and eight turnovers.
Coincidentally, N.C. State started 0-3 in the ACC, then finished 3-2 with losses to Louisville (9-3) and Georgia Tech (10-3), the Coastal Divison champs.
“We were more disruptive,” Doeren said of the final five games. “We created more opportunities for big plays on defense.”
Doeren singled out the play of the defensive front as a reason for the improvement. The development of McKever (a redshirt freshman), defensive tackle B.J. Hill (freshman), defensive tackle Justin Jones (freshman) and linebacker Airius Moore (freshman) in particular was a big boost, Doeren said.
Huxtable said that none of the late season success would have been possible without senior defensive tackles Thomas Teal and T.Y. McGill.
“Those two guys really started to play like seniors should play,” Huxtable said.
Teal and McGill combined for four of the Wolfpack’s 11 tackles for losses against UNC. McGill’s sack of UNC quarterback Marquise Williams on the first drive of the third quarter knocked Williams out of the game.
Williams final numbers – 16 rushing attempts, 11 yards – illustrated how far N.C. State’s defense had come since losing to Boston College and the improvement it made neutralizing mobile quarterbacks.
The progression was natural for a group with 14 freshmen and sophomores listed on the depth chart.
“There’s nothing more valuable than game experience,” Huxtable said.
N.C. State learned and got better as the season got longer. As a result, the Wolfpack’s back in a bowl game with a chance at an eighth win.