After N.C. State made a handful of mistakes in the loss at West Virginia last week, Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren said:
“That’s not who we are and that’s not who we can be.”
With four new assistant coaches and new starters across the offensive line and without two NFL receivers and a sixth-year quarterback, N.C. State (2-1) is still trying to figure out what it can be.
Three games into the season, N.C. State is understandably different than the team it was in going 9-4 in 2017 and again in 2018. A visit from Ball State (1-2) on Saturday night (7 p.m., ESPNU) will give Doeren and this young team another chance to take a step forward.
Doeren is still bullish on the prospects of this team, even if there’s a more promising payoff a year or two down the road. This team is the “fastest” he has had in seven years, Doeren said.
And there’s promising, young talent, but it’s inexperienced and not quite ready for road challenges like last Saturday’s 44-27 loss at West Virginia.
“When it clicks, you’ve got a lot of talented young guys out there,” Doeren said on Thursday. “It’s just got to click.”
The WVU performance was marked by procedural penalties, a missed special teams assignment and poor run defense. To Doeren’s point, those were not problems for the Wolfpack in previous seasons.
Those were experienced, talented teams (featuring 14 future NFL players). This group only has half of that equation.
It did not help that two of the team’s senior leaders, defensive end James Smith-Williams and cornerback Nick McCloud, missed the game with injuries. There’s a chance Smith-Williams, who is no longer wearing a walking boot on his right foot, will be able to play against the Cardinals.
McCloud, who has missed the past two games with a knee injury, is not listed on the depth chart and is not expected to play. The absence of McCloud hinders N.C. State in two ways: He is the team’s best cover corner, and he’s also the most fiery personality on the defense.
Injury issues aside, N.C. State has to figure out how to play smarter against Ball State, which ranks second in the Mid-American Conference in scoring (37.3) and has a junior quarterback in Drew Plitt who is second in the country with 11 touchdown passes.
In its first two games, N.C. State was flagged for nine combined penalties. It had the same number in the loss to WVU. Worse, of the nine penalties, four were of the pre-snap procedural variety. In other words, the kind that are completely avoidable.
N.C. State was one of the least penalized teams in the ACC last season. With Ryan Finley, a three-year starter at quarterback, the Wolfpack minimized its procedural mistakes.
Redshirt sophomore Matt McKay made his first road start at WVU and only his third start since his senior year in high school in 2016. There is some understandable rust involved there.
You never know which way a team will go after its first setback, but Doeren said the players were energetic in practice on Tuesday, for the game-plan installation, and Wednesday “was our best Wednesday that we’ve had this year.”
Now the question is: How will that translate to Saturday?
“I expect a very angry football team,” Doeren said. “We’ve got to put that into execution and go out and do our jobs.”
Ball State at NC State
When: 7 p.m., Saturday
Where: Carter-Finley Stadium, Raleigh
Listen: WRAL-101.5 Triangle; WXRC-95.7 Charlotte