Dave Doeren didn’t recognize his own team on Saturday.
It wasn’t the rain or the black jerseys, but the mistakes. N.C. State committed a handful of penalties and turned the ball over on a costly fumble in the first half. The Wolfpack couldn’t run the ball, either.
In running roughshod over four weaker nonconference foes, the Wolfpack didn’t have any such problems. On Saturday, in the first ACC game of the season, N.C. State picked the worst possible time to pick up bad habits in a 20-13 home loss to Louisville.
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“I just told them at halftime, that’s not us,” Doeren said.
N.C. State (4-1, 0-1 ACC) dug a 17-7 hole at the half, and it couldn’t get out, not against Louisville’s stout defense and not with another fumble late in the third quarter.
The Wolfpack ended up with more penalty yards (50) than rushing yards (45). This from a team that had averaged 259 rushing yards per game against the likes of Old Dominion and South Alabama.
“We just tried to do what we do, and it wasn’t working today,” sophomore Jaylen Samuels said.
The formula had been a heavy dose of Samuels, running back Matt Dayes and a clean brand of football. N.C. State had one turnover in the first four games, a meaningless fumble in a 35-0 win over Eastern Kentucky.
Receiver Jumichael Ramos fumbled in the first quarter, on the Louisville 4-yard line after a 44-yard catch-and-run, that the Cardinals quickly turned into a 7-0 lead. Freshman quarterback Lamar Jackson busted a 68-yard touchdown run on an option keep at 3:54 in the first quarter.
On an afternoon of the wrong kind of firsts, that was also unusual for N.C. State’s defense, Doeren said.
“That’s the first time all year that that has happened where we just miscommunicated,” Doeren said of Jackson’s TD run. “We had a run stunt on, and we weren’t on the same page.”
Jackson, making his first start on the road, was able to slice up N.C. State’s defense for 121 rushing yards. He was less effective passing (10 of 27, 103 yards) but made enough plays to keep N.C. State’s previously dangerous offense off the field.
Whatever plays Jackson didn’t make, N.C. State provided a little extra help. The Wolfpack had committed less than four penalties per game for an average of 35.2 yards. It was flagged four times for 50 yards in the first half, including a critical late hit call on a Louisville (2-3, 1-1) scoring drive.
“We hurt ourselves, obviously, with things that we’ve been doing very well at,” senior defensive end Mike Rose said.
Before Saturday’s loss, that also meant getting off the field on third down. N.C. State’s first four opponents were a combined 9 of 48 on third down, Louisville was 6 of 10 in the decisive first half.
Doeren saw a familiar version of N.C. State in the third quarter, but it was too late. A 21-yard touchdown pass from Jacoby Brissett to Samuels cut the Cardinals’ lead to 17-13. Even that was a 50-50 proposition because freshman kicker Kyle Bambard missed the extra point.
A fumble by Dayes, who finished with 68 yards on 19 carries, with 2:36 left in the third quarter stunted N.C. State’s momentum.
“We didn’t play as good as we can play, obviously,” Doeren said.
With its first loss since November, and an 0-1 ACC start, N.C. State has to regroup with a trip to Virginia Tech on Friday looming.
N.C. State can’t get this game back, but it can figure out a way to avoid the same mistakes.
“This was a good test for us,” Samuels said. “Now we have to learn from it.”
Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio