Let's start by calling this what it was: a disappointing, but inspiring loss. In so many ways, this game was largely a regression for a team that had made great strides in the second half of the season. As someone mentioned in the open thread last night, it was almost a microcosm of the season; poor start, amazing middle, and disappointing ending.
But at the same time, there was something there that was promising. After falling behind 21 points (a near-insurmountable amount for this team by all accounts), these young men (and I mean that in every sense of the word) showed a resilience that should be commended. They scrapped, they clawed, they pulled out everything they had and left it all on the field.
That they came up short is as much a sign of their youth as it is a sign of the pieces that are still missing. Still, you have to think that good times are ahead.
- Where else to start besides Teddy? The kid showed amazing heart out there. I lost count of how many times I held my breath as he lay on the ground, wondering if he was going to get back up or how he would look when he did. That he kept getting back up, dusting himself off, and jogging back onto the field after one play was amazing. As they say, you can't coach heart, and this kid has it in spades.
At the same time, this was probably the first game in months that he looked like a true freshman out there. There were poor decisions aplenty, not limited to the first interception or the sacks with time running out that you just can't take. Furthermore, he made several errant throws that we haven't seen from him before. It's hard to blame him considering he was running for his life on nearly every play (more on that later), but this game was a painful reminder that he is, in fact, still just a true freshman.
Still, there were again flashes of brilliance, and I have little doubt that this kid will be anything but a star. The play where he tiptoed the sideline and made a beautiful touch pass to the back corner of the end zone (while being held, no less) was spectacular.
- Speaking of quarterbacks, Will Stein can still throw, right? He went into the game three times, and executed the same HB stretch off left tackle from the pistol every single time. The first time, I can understand. The second and third times, though, time was short, points were needed, and lack of yardage gained meant Teddy came back in needing to execute on third and long just to keep the drive going. Let the kid throw a swing or a screen or something, at least.
- In the end, the Will Stein situation was just a small part of an overall larger problem that continues to plague this team: poor play calling on offense. In my mind, it started in the first half in the red zone with the Wild Card call on 3rd and 3 inside the 10. It almost felt like we were settling for a field goal on purpose. Teddy can throw, let him do it.
Nothing was worse, however, than the fourth down calls. Or, rather, the fourth down call. Seriously, we have more than one play on 4th and 1, right? Because judging by the evidence at hand, it would appear that Tight-I Power is all we have. I know Charlie wants to be a physical team, so I can understand the call the first time, maybe even the second. But after it failed both of those times, why would you continue to go to it a third and fourth time? Particularly in critical situations where we have to get the conversion. Everybody in the world could see it coming, there was no surprise or misdirection, and the blocking was poor every single time.
To be completely honest, even during the winning streak, the play calling has been lackluster and conservative. It was a problem last year that was largely overshadowed by good offensive line execution, tremendous running back ability, and, to be fair, low expectations. I had hoped it would be remedied after Watson moved up, but it simply hasn't worked out. My concern is that this is less a problem with the coordinator and more a problem with Charlie Strong wanting a certain style of team. I hope I'm wrong, but the actions that are taken this offseason will say a lot about where this team is headed offensively. Let's hope it's to a place that is far more creative and uses the talents of the team better (the quarterback and receivers).
- There were several coaching snafus in this game in my opinion, even outside the play calling. The onside kick with four minutes left. Not taking timeouts with time running down. A timeout with the clock already stopped. Not challenging the play where they called Teddy out of bounds (when it was clearly an incomplete pass) AND kept the clock rolling. It's sometimes easy to forget that this is still a relatively inexperienced coaching staff as well, and there will be mistakes along the way. It will be interesting to see how the entire team grows over the next few years.
- And now for the elephant in the room: the offensive line. Offensive is a good word for them. This is a regression if I've ever seen it. They were missing blocks, they were slow, and they just weren't very good. There were signs of some good blocking early on, but when NC State brought the pressure (which was often), they really struggled in making the right reads. There was far too much reacting after the snap, which should never happen with a good offensive line. And as evidenced by the repeated failures on fourth down, they were getting blown off the ball by a defensive line that they outweighed by nearly 20 pounds.
As Charlie said after the game, a lot is going to be said and written about this team over the next 8 months or so until the next season begins. But one thing that's certain is that the line has to get a lot better if we want to have a chance to go to a BCS bowl anytime soon. There's no doubt that they played better in the final 6 games of the season, but there were still signs of cracks in the foundation. The Pitt game exemplified this best, where they struggled to open up holes and slow down the pass rush, and it cropped up again last night. We just can't match up with a big, physical team right now, and that's going to limit our progress unless we get a serious infusion of talent and cohesiveness. The good news is that we have a lot of guys coming in and a lot of guys returning.
- If the offensive line is the elephant in the room, the defensive line is the hippo. This was probably the most disappointing aspect of the game in my opinion. They did a fine job stopping the run, but it's hard to know if that was their doing or just NC State being a poor running team (not to mention the fact that they barely even tried to run for much of the game). The pass rush, on the other hand, was almost nonexistent. As I said in the open thread last night, it almost felt like they weren't even trying to get to the quarterback; they were just occupying linemen hoping that somebody else would eventually get there. There wasn't a lot of activity, there wasn't a lot of stunting or twisting, and there was a decided lack of speed. It was a big letdown for the group that was really supposed to be the strength of the defense.
- The defense overall really struggled in the first half, which allowed NC State to get out to a big lead. We've struggled all season with the short pass, and it came back to bite us again last night. I think the problem is two-fold: we're not fast enough in the back 7 to play press coverage (for fear of getting beat deep), and our zone coverage is still not that great. Combined with all the blitzing that we do, it means short routes are going to be open. We've got to get better at swarming to the ball and not letting a 2 yard drag turn into a 10 yard play. Also give credit to NC State, who basically used the umpire as a pick on every other play to great effect. But still, we've got to tackle better. There were way too many broken tackles, particularly in the secondary.
On the other hand, they played very well in the second half, limiting NC State to just 3 points. One thing that is overlooked is the move of Hakeem Smith to nickel corner and bringing in Terrence Simien at safety, who made some huge plays. It's something I didn't see coming, and to be honest, was a pretty astounding shakeup. These guys can coach defense.
- Penalties. My God, the penalties. It's disappointing to me that we continue to struggle here. I know we have a young team, but these have got to stop. You can't keep beating yourself. The drive in the second half where we committed penalties three times to keep the drive alive, and ended up giving up 3 points when it should've been nothing, was a game changer. Not only did it allow them to take a two-touchdown lead, but it also took almost 7 minutes off the clock, time that would have been very valuable down the stretch. This is something we really need to clean up if we want to have a shot at the BCS.
- Eli Rogers is going to be a fantastic receiver, but he's got a lot to learn quickly. He's already been taken off punt return duties for not securing the ball, and he continues to struggle with the same problem in the passing game. He dropped several crucial passes (including one which was ruled a catch and not reviewed), the most damaging being on 3rd down after the onside kick. The worst play, however, was not going for the ball on Amerson's first interception. As Charlie said after the game, if he at least makes a play on the ball, that's either going to be a catch, an incompletion, or a pass interference. Not even making an attempt was just awful, and it ended in a pick-6, which, in retrospect, was probably the dagger. It was still an amazing play by Amerson, who is a very good player.
- I think it's important to give Vic some credit. He played probably his best game of the year, which is what you want to see from a senior. He was making good cuts, looked more determined than ever, was doing a great job at running north-south, and was fighting for every yard. I was hoping to see more of that all season, but it was nice to see him bookend his career in a positive way.
- It was also nice to see Josh Bellamy come to play. In the absence of Michaelee Harris, it was important for him to have a good game, and he stepped up with some big catches. He didn't have quite the senior season that we were all hoping for, and no doubt that has something to do with the quarterback change (Teddy is much more about spreading the ball around whereas Froman and Burke really only concentrated on two or three receivers most of the game), but he was a big reason we had the opportunities we had last night.
- A senior that really didn't step up was Josh Chichester. He made one really good catch, but was nearly invisible for the rest of the game. When he was visible, he was back to dropping a lot of catches. After having a good season last year, I was expecting good things from him this year, but he was incredibly inconsistent. At the end of the day, I just don't think the move to tight end was a good one for him. He's just not a very good blocker, and he's too slow to be coming out of a three-point stance. It'll be interesting to see how the offense changes next year with true tight ends in Nate Nord and Chris White, both of whom made some excellent catches this season and are good blockers.
- I don't know what was going on, but there were a lot of Louisville players slipping out there last night. Maybe it had something to do with playing on natural grass, which is something we didn't do very much this season. Maybe it was because of all the rain earlier in the day. I read something earlier that said the team switched to new cleats and they couldn't change the spikes. No matter the reason, it directly led to at least one touchdown, and several other big plays. Just wasn't our night.
- The officials were terrible. I'm not sure they were really biased, as they made bad calls both ways, I think they were just incompetent. The unsportsmanlike flag on Preston Brown was nothing short of egregious, and is easily one of the top 5 worst calls of all time. How they were able to hold it up, even after conferring, when everyone else could see how bad of a call it was, is absolutely appalling.
Then there was the out of bounds call late in the game where they said Teddy was pushed out when he clearly threw the ball. It was a loss of 7 yards, but worst of all, they kept the clock running, saying he was pushed out of bounds, meaning we lost nearly another minute of time. And at no point did they ever review the play. Besides those plays, there was Eli's catch that wasn't really a catch, there were numerous NC State holds that weren't called, questionable pass interference calls and non-calls, several arguably late hits on Teddy, and countless unnecessary (and unnecessarily long) reviews. Just a poor performance by the zebras.
Overall, a disappointing loss, but this team showed a lot of grit and determination, and that's promising. There's also a ton of youth that will do a lot of growing up. Mike said before the game that he was concerned the young guys on this team would not be focused, that they would look at it more as a reward rather than a business trip, and I think that was true. There definitely seemed to be a lack of focus to start the game, and that resulted in NC State getting out to a big lead that proved too much to overcome.
Still, the future is bright. I don't know that we're quite ready for a BCS bowl yet, but we're certainly headed in that direction, and that's a good thing to be able to say.