Dave Doeren wishes there was a better answer.
The third-year Wolfpack coach, the team and most N.C. State fans had certainly expected a better one before the 2015 season.
And almost as soon as Doeren answered a question about what he liked about his team this season, he tried to qualify it.
“I thought we were very competitive,” Doeren said at a recent press conference in preparation for N.C. State’s Belk Bowl matchup with Mississippi State (8-4) on Dec. 30 in Charlotte.
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To Doeren’s point, in 2014 N.C. State lost five ACC games by an average of 23.4 points and two games by more than 33 points.
This season, N.C. State lost five ACC games by an average of 13 points and didn’t lose any by more than 17 points.
“That’s hard to say you feel good about because you don’t feel good about losing but you do feel good about being competitive,” Doeren said. “Now you have to take it another step and get out from under a six-point loss and flip it.”
N.C. State (7-5) finds itself a day before Christmas in nearly the same exact spot it was last year, with the same record and almost the same vital statistics, albeit with a loss to rival North Carolina in the regular-season finale instead of a win.
But there’s more than a tinge of disappointment in how this season unfolded for the Wolfpack, which had hopes of building on a strong finish to 2014. Back in August, the second double-digit win season in school history seemed feasible against a negotiable schedule and with a veteran quarterback in fifth-year senior Jacoby Brissett.
N.C. State started the season 4-0 outside the ACC, just like last year, but the big finish didn’t materialize. It alternated losses and wins over the final seven weeks of the regular season.
Early October losses to Louisville and Virginia Tech, in particular, extinguished any hope of the team’s preseason goal of “raising the bar.”
“Obviously, things didn’t go our way for a few games,” senior cornerback Juston Burris said. “There’s a lot of games we should have won. We could have done some things differently.”
The loss of running back Shadrach Thornton, who was arrested for the third time in three years and kicked off the team three days before the 20-13 home loss to Louisville on Oct. 3, and a season-ending injury to Matt Dayes in the second quarter of a 56-41 loss to Clemson on Oct. 31 derailed N.C. State’s season.
N.C. State finished the regular season averaging 201.4 rushing yards per game — only 3.1 less than it did in 2014 – but a power element of the running game was missing without the senior running back.
Dayes’ foot injury, in the final moments of the second quarter of the emotional loss to ACC champion Clemson, left the Wolfpack lacking the firepower to keep up with either Florida State or UNC, a pair of top-10 teams, in key November losses.
“We lost two of our best players,” senior quarterback Jacoby Brissett said. “To any team that’s a tough break.”
But to Doeren, the personnel losses were only part of the problem. Key lapses, like in the first quarter of the Louisville game or second quarter at Virginia Tech and the opening quarter of the UNC game, crippled N.C. State’s chances at surpassing last year’s win total.
Doeren described the lapses as mental breakdowns, focus issues and an “urgency dropoff.”
“And it’s not a whole quarter, it’s just a segment of a quarter, where you’re like, ‘What just happened right there?’ ” Doeren said.
On the flip side, N.C. State did have surges where it looked like the team that finished 2014 in a flurry, with four wins in the final five games, and the one it was supposed to be in August.
The Wolfpack sprinted out to a 28-0 lead at Wake Forest on Oct. 24, for its first win in Winston-Salem since 2001.
It had a 20-19 lead on Clemson, the No. 1 team in the country, with a minute left in the first half. Just the year before, the Tigers destroyed N.C. State, 41-0 on the road.
The Pack also held a 17-7 lead at Florida State, a place it had been out-scored 83-17 on its previous two trips, midway through the second quarter.
Clemson and FSU’s talent advantage ultimately prevailed. More troubling was how a 10-point second quarter lead at Virginia Tech disappeared, six days after the Hokies’ completely inept offensive performance against Pittsburgh on the same field.
Given the 3-5 finish in the ACC, even with rare road wins at Wake Forest and Boston College, the negatives counter-balanced the positives. That explains an equally unsettling answer to a different question.
Fifth-year senior defensive end Mike Rose was asked if the senior class had left N.C. State in a better spot than it found it.
Rose noted the Wolfpack went 3-9 during Doeren’s first season, so back-to-back bowl trips is a plus. But, the year before the fifth-year senior class arrived, the Wolfpack went 9-4 and finished No. 25 in the AP poll in 2010.
“We left the place in the middle of the road,” Rose said. “We were down. There was a time when we were not very good. I feel like we helped bring us back to the middle.”
N.C. State has plenty of company in the ACC’s doughy middle. The problem for the Wolfpack is there’s no easy answer for how to go from good to great.
Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio
N.C. State’s numbers from the 2014 and 2015 seasons are similar, especially on offense (NCAA rank in parenthesis).
201.4 ypg (32nd)
210.5 ypg (79th)
411.9 ypg (57th)
33.7 ppg (37th)
204.5 ypg (39th)
204.0 ypg (84th)
30.2 ppg (57th)