The first half of the college football season could not have gone much better for N.C. State.
The Wolfpack (5-1) has won five straight games, gotten off to a 3-0 ACC start and is back in the national rankings (No. 20 in both polls) for the first time in seven years.
Ever since a season-opening loss to South Carolina, it has been all sunshine and roses for the Wolfpack, which is off to its best start since opening the 2002 season with a 9-0 record.
With six games in the books, and six more to go, there’s no time for complacency, coach Dave Doeren said.
“We can’t ever think that we’ve made it because we haven’t,” Doeren said. “We’re at the halfway point right now, and we want to continue this ride, and the only way to do that is to improve.”
N.C. State starts the second half of the season on Saturday at Pittsburgh (2-4, 0-2 ACC). The Wolfpack then gets a week off before a trip to Notre Dame and a home date with Clemson, which could determine the Atlantic Division race.
Going into the season, Doeren’s fifth, these were the five main questions facing N.C. State. Midway through the season, there have been more positive answers than negative.
1) Question: Will the Wolfpack handle the hype?
Answer: No then yes.
With 16 starters back from a 7-6 team, which finished the 2016 season with a flourish, some analysts were bullish on the Wolfpack’s prospects this season.
N.C. State was not ranked in the preseason, but it was tabbed by one ESPN analyst as a potential College Football Playoff contender and picked by another to win the ACC.
So there were a lot of “Here we go agains” after the 35-28 loss to South Carolina in Charlotte to open the season.
N.C. State outplayed the Gamecocks (504 yards total offense to 206) and had more than twice as many first downs (29 to 12) but a pair of turnovers and a kickoff return for a touchdown led to the loss.
Unlike years past, N.C. State was able to process the difficult loss and move on. Home wins over Marshall and Furman were followed up by a 27-21 win at Florida State – the Wolfpack’s first win over a top-25 opponent in Doeren’s tenure.
A home game with Syracuse – between dates with Atlantic powers FSU and Louisville – was a prime spot for a letdown, but N.C. State handled its business with a 33-25 win.
Then came the 39-25 payback win over Louisville, which embarrassed N.C. State in 2016, on the national primetime stage.
Individually, N.C. State went out of its way to promote receiver/running back Jaylen Samuels and defensive end Bradley Chubb before the season. Both have lived up to their preseason hype and neither have been distracted by the their NFL futures.
Samuels leads the team in catches (50) and touchdowns (8) and has expanded his role in the offense. He’s on pace to set the school’s single-season receptions record and break Jerricho Cotchery’s career receptions record.
Since a few missed tackles against South Carolina, Chubb has been dominant and was a primary reason for the wins over FSU and Louisville. He leads all Power 5 conference schools with 13 tackles for loss and with 6.5 sacks. He even had a key blocked extra point in the 39-25 Louisville win.
Both Samuels and Chubb made ESPN’s midseason All-American teams and both are on track for postseason honors.
2) Question: Who will replace Matt Dayes at running back?
Answer: Nyheim Hines.
It’s not easy to replace one of the best running backs in school history, but Hines has made it look that way.
The junior has stepped into Dayes’ role as the primary back and has averaged 103.7 yards per ACC game. His 5.1 yards per carry is better than Dayes’ full-season average (4.7).
Hines had a standout prep career in Garner as a running back but spent his first two seasons in college as primarily a receiver. He hasn’t had any problems making the switch.
A veteran offensive line, which has hit its stride since the return of right tackle Will Richardson from a two-game suspension, is a big reason for Hines’ success.
3) Question: How will a revamped secondary hold up?
Answer: Barely, at times, but hanging in there.
With Chubb and all six starters up front back from last year, the secondary was the biggest question for the Wolfpack defense this season.
Three (of five starters) needed to be broken in. That number went to four when senior cornerback Mike Stevens sprained his knee in practice in early August. Stevens missed the first four games.
Starting safety Dexter Wright suffered a groin injury in the opener and hasn’t played on defense since. Backups James Valdez (corner) and Freddie Phillips (nickel) are out for the season with injuries.
Given those injury problems, it’s not a surprise that the Wolfpack ranks No. 122 in the country in pass defense (296.3 yards per game).
Twice this season, an opposing receiver has set a Carter-Finley Stadium record: Marshall’s Tyre Brady for receiving yards (248) and Syracuse’s Erv Philips for receptions (17).
But N.C. State won both of those games. And both Florida State and Louisville had the ball late, with a chance to tie or win, and N.C. State’s secondary helped come up with a stop.
4) Question: How much progress will quarterback Ryan Finley make?
Answer: A lot.
Finley graduated and transferred from Boise State in the summer of 2016. He was able to come in and win the starting job at N.C. State.
It was his first full year in college as a starter (also his first healthy year). Finley was good in 2016 but not great. He made a lot of safe plays but didn’t make enough plays in N.C. State’s toughest games to help the Wolfpack win.
In his second season (he still has one more year of eligibility) at N.C. State, Finley has been off the charts. He still makes smart decisions and keeps N.C. State’s offense out of trouble, but he’s also taking more chances down field.
Through six games, Finley has completed 70.9 percent of his passes for 1,770 yards with 10 touchdowns and no interceptions. He set a school record for completions (45) in the loss to South Carolina.
He was spectacular in the win over Louisville (367 yards, a career-best 11.8 yards per attempt). Finley was benched in last year’s loss at Louisville, for a point of comparison.
Five of Finley’s eight interceptions came in losses to Clemson, Louisville and FSU last year. He did not throw any, or turn the ball over, in the wins over FSU and Louisville.
5) Question: Will N.C. State fix its kicking game?
Answer: Yes and no.
Doeren brought in Carson Wise, a graduate transfer from Carson-Newman, to replace Kyle Bambard. Through six games, Wise has made 6 of 10 field goals and 25 of 27 PATs.
Through six games last year, Bambard and Connor Haskins were a combined 5 of 11 on field goals and 22 of 24 on PATs.
Wise missed his first field-goal attempt of the season (a 29-yarder vs. South Carolina) and all four of his misses are from less than 40 yards. He did make a 48-yarder against Syracuse on Sept. 30.
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio