The problem N.C. State had stopping Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson was a simple one, easy for the Wolfpack’s Mike Rose.
“Pretty fast,” the Wolfpack defensive end said. “He was just really fast.”
What Rose didn’t say was Jackson was faster than anyone the Wolfpack had seen during its 4-0 start, just as Louisville’s defense was bigger and meaner and faster than anything N.C. State saw during its four-game tiptoe through the football tulips.
Like an 8-handicap at RGA who goes to Augusta National full of confidence and shoots a tidy 110, the Wolfpack went from undefeated to exposed in a splatter of raindrops Saturday, losing 20-13 due mostly to a series of self-inflicted wounds.
After getting fat and happy in three games against Sun Belt and Conference USA also-rans and another against an FCS team, the Wolfpack found itself unprepared for an ACC opponent that was 1-3 with losses to Auburn, Houston and Clemson, nary a directional school in sight.
Louisville linebacker James Burgess said this week the Wolfpack had not been “Louisville tested.” That may be a low bar, because Louisville clearly isn’t a great team, but the Cardinals were harder to block and harder to tackle than anything N.C. State had seen so far. And Burgess backed up his words by stopping Matt Dayes on 4th-and-1 to seal the win.
All the stutter-stopping jukes that had Dayes looking like Barry Sanders against Old Dominion didn’t work so well against Louisville. Dayes was tripped up at least twice with open field in front of him and accounted for one of N.C. State’s two costly turnovers when he fumbled trying a spin move. With Shadrach Thornton dismissed from the team, there was no one Doeren trusted in the bullpen, either. Reggie Gallaspy was the only other running back to get a carry, and only a single one.
All those open receivers against South Alabama and Troy weren’t so open for Jacoby Brissett against Louisville. The N.C. State quarterback was a poor 16-for-28 for 183 yards under the kind of pressure he hadn’t even come close to sensing in the first four games. Technically he was only sacked three times, but he was rarely secure in the pocket.
And none of the opposing quarterbacks (or running backs or wide receivers) the Wolfpack saw before Saturday were as quick as Jackson, who scored on a 68-yard sprint in the first quarter and ended up with 121 yards on 19 carries.
There was nothing Dave Doeren could do about this schedule and who N.C. State plays, but the Wolfpack coach denied the four glorified exhibitions left his team unprepared for the gritty reality of legitimate competition.
“We play against our own defense every day, we play against our own offense every day, and we do that on purpose so that we are prepared for guys like that,” Doeren said. “It was a 20-13 ballgame. It was a physical football game and they made more plays than we did, I agree with you on that, but I don’t think it was because of who we played.”
He’s right that the margin was small, with 10 of Louisville’s points coming off two turnovers, one of those a fumble by Jumichael Ramos when a mere 4 yards from scoring, but there’s also no question that this was an entirely winnable game that N.C. State lost in disheartening fashion, and that the Wolfpack was dramatically better in the second half than it was in the first, after adjusting and regrouping to the quality of opposition.
There have been two unquestioned must-win games in Dave Doeren’s tenure: Last year at Syracuse, still looking for his first ACC win, and Saturday against Louisville, looking to validate the Wolfpack’s gaudy record. He’s 1-for-2 after failing to beat the unimpressive Cardinals at home.
The Wolfpack now goes to Virginia Tech on Friday night, a rare opportunity to beat the unusually mediocre Hokies under the lights in Blacksburg, a rare opportunity for redemption after being unmasked as an Atlantic Division pretender Saturday.
Luke DeCock: firstname.lastname@example.org, 919-829-8947, @LukeDeCock