NC State

Failed ‘Power 5’ test sends NC State back to the drawing board

The road to respectability was never going to be paved with lollipops and Catamounts.

Yet, Boston College’s lopsided home loss to what has been a woeful Kansas program on Friday begged N.C. State fans to wake up on Saturday and look at the first half of their schedule and ask:

“Why can’t we start 6-0?”

West Virginia, Florida State, Syracuse and BC had all looked vulnerable (or worse) through the first two weeks of this season.

N.C. State, with a pair of directional in-state scalps, looked promising or at least sufficient enough to beat the shaky Mountaineers. Las Vegas agreed. N.C. State was a touchdown favorite.

But reality, like sunrise after a late night in a Morgantown bar, always comes earlier than anybody wants or in the Wolfpack’s case, can handle.

West Virginia went from one of those “why can’ts?” on N.C. State’s early schedule to a “no way” with a 44-27 home win over the Wolfpack on Saturday afternoon.

“Rich-Rod” Era legends Pat White and Steve Slaton didn’t come back for WVU, it just seemed like it. Quarterback Austin Kendall (three passing touchdowns) and running back Kennedy McKoy (two rushing touchdowns) found their mojo after an impotent start to the season.

There was a humbling reality to Saturday’s loss for N.C. State (2-1). It was the second in three years to a nonconference “Power 5” opponent on the road for coach Dave Doeren and the fourth for the program going back to 2003.

It’s telling that N.C. State hasn’t played many of these prime challenges, preferring to pad the win total to reach the postseason, and that it can’t win them when they do play them. In six such games this century, N.C. State has given up 44, 35, 34, 44, 48 and 38 points and has a 2-4 record in those games.

By the time the Mountaineers blasted through N.C. State’s defense on the opening drive for a 7-0 lead, no one was confusing West Virginia for Western Carolina (a 41-0 win) or East Carolina (a 34-6 win).

“The (first) two games, there was really no competition,” N.C. State senior safety Jarius Morehead told the media after the game. “This was a real game.”

And a real test that N.C. State’s young team failed. That’s not to be totally unexpected (Vegas be damned) with the first road game of the season.

This is an N.C. State program in transition. Doeren has won nine games in each of the past two seasons and has sent 13 players to the NFL.

This is an N.C. State team with young talent but without an identity or real hierarchy of who will step up and make the big plays when necessary.

Sophomore receiver Thayer Thomas (one catch, 8 yards) and freshman Bam Knight (12 carries, 72 yards) seemed to be the best options but were underutilized on Saturday.

New quarterback Matt McKay, solid enough in his two starts, looked like a new quarterback in his first road start. It was a bad sign when N.C. State broke the huddle on its first play of the game and was flagged for a delay-of-game penalty.

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N.C. State was penalized nine times for 88 yards, had a punt blocked and couldn’t stop the run.

“That’s not who we are,” Doeren said.

He is right and admirably Doeren took the blame for the loss. A good coach always takes the blame for the first loss.

Now the biggest challenge for Doeren is to get McKay back on track or decide if he needs to go in a different direction. McKay, who completed only 47.9 percent of his passes (23 of 48), was shaky as a passer and ineffective as runner (nine yards). He has to figure out one or other for N.C. State to be good going forward.

That’s how it works. You have to play the games. This isn’t “Signing Day” or the Golden Globes, everyone’s not a winner. You can’t just daydream and doodle in wins on the schedule because it never goes the way you expect.

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Joe Giglio has worked at The N&O since 1995 and has regularly reported on the ACC since 2005. He grew up in Ringwood, N.J. and graduated from N.C. State.
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