A War Lost in the Trenches: A Final Look at the Tom O’Brien Era

Streeter Lecka

TOB teams lost because they didn't do TOB things.

Tom O'Brien did a lot of good at N. C. State. Most notably, he beat North Carolina five years in a row and became just the fourth Wolfpack head coach to win back-to-back bowl games, joining Lou Holtz (72-73), Bo Rein (77-78), and Chuck Amato (02-03). He also ran a program that shone like a beacon of sweet innocence and light in contrast to the muck and the mire that plagues the Pack's scandal-ridden Orange County rivals.

But for all his success, TOB was plagued by a greater number of shortcomings. For example, TOB posted a very respectable 8-6 mark (.571 winning percentage) against ranked opponents but, thanks to numerous WTF losses (see partial list below), went a very middling 32-29 (.525) against everybody else. He brought in a few top talents like Mike Glennon and Rob Crisp to Raleigh but was consistently out-recruited by Duke.

The bad losses and Conference USA level recruiting are well documented and certainly undermined O'Brien's ability to replicate the nine-win-and-a-bowl program he left at Boston College; however, the chief reason for his demise was because TOB's Pack teams simply did not do the things TOB teams were supposed to do, namely dominate the line of scrimmage and protect the ball. And, perhaps most damningly, his final team lost TOB's trademark discipline in terms of penalties.

N. C. State was penalized an Amato-esque 6.7 times per game in 2012, the highest mark during TOB's tenure and 88th worst in the FBS. The Pack's 33 giveaways, also the highest total during TOB's time at State, ranked 116th. These figures seem to show a team that lacked both discipline and accountability, as did David Amerson repeatedly getting beat deep while freelancing instead of playing within the defensive system, or the whole team forgetting that the play is still alive after an offside call, a mistake that cost them a touchdown and perhaps a win at Miami. TOB-recruited teams simply did not have the elite level of talent needed to win without discipline and accountability.

The old adage is that the game is won or lost in the trenches, and offensive line play stands out as the most glaring difference between O'Brien's BC and N. C. State teams. A quick perusal of pro football reference's draft database shows why BC earned the nickname of "O.L.U." A dozen Eagles that were either coached or recruited by O'Brien before he left campus heard their names called in the NFL draft, including three first round picks and three linemen that have over 100 starts in the league. If he comes out early, Crisp, a junior, might improve the numbers, and a team might take a flyer on R. J. Mattes given his pedigree, but so far Ted Larsen is the lone TOB-coached offensive lineman from N. C. State that has been drafted.

The lack of adequate line play is evident in the statistics. In his six years at the helm of the Wolfpack, just one TOB team had a yards per carry advantage over their opponent; the 2010 Pack averaged a scant 0.1 yard more per carry than they gave up. In every other year, State's opponents enjoyed the per carry rushing advantage, and, in 2012 and 2007, opponents averaged better than a yard per carry more than the Wolfpack. That's the recipe for feasting on a few FCS teams, springing an upset or two, and averaging 6.7 wins per season; in contrast, TOB's last six BC teams held a yards per carry rushing advantage over opponents five times (and had just a -0.1 disadvantage in the other year) and averaged 8.7 wins per season. No matter what newfangled offensive system comes around, teams that can run the ball effectively while stopping opponents from doing so will always be at the top of the college football landscape.

TOB's Pack offensive lines were no better at protecting the passer; State's "best" season under O'Brien's watch was 2008 when it gave up 2.08 sacks per game, 80th in the FBS. In 2012 and 2010 TOB units yielded three or more sacks a game, finishing 111th and 112th in the FBS, respectively. It's no small miracle that Russell Wilson and Mike Glennon got out of here alive.

Wilson and Glennon, two of the three best signal callers in the program's history, epitomize why it was time for TOB to go. Many expected a Sendeckian outrage from the media when Dr. Yow dismissed O'Brien even though his squad had a chance to post a nine-win season followed by two eight-win campaigns (of course penalties and turnovers prevented the 8th win in the Music City Bowl versus Vanderbilt). Russell Wilson has won 12 games and counting as a rookie in the NFL, and Glennon will be a first-day pick in April, yet N. C. State missed out on the window of opportunity these unique talents presented. The media seemed to realize not only that the Pack underachieved in the recent past, but that the window was likely slammed shut with Glennon's departure. And, unlike the bungled coaching search that led to the dark ages of the Lowe era in basketball, Yow quickly filled the vacancy with what appears to be a homerun hire in Dave Doeren. And the media has been quiet.

Wolfpack nation has a lot to be thankful for from the O'Brien years, but, ultimately, what the old marine couldn't get done in the trenches cost him his job, and it is difficult to make a convincing argument that he deserved more time to make N. C. State a consistent top 25 program (and perhaps even harder to make the argument that he could do that at all-State finished the season ranked just once in his six seasons).

A Trip Down WTF Loss Lane:

  • 2007: TOB's Pack follow up a 20-point loss at Wake Forest with a 37-0 home drubbing against Maryland in Ron Cherry's famed giving him the business game. The two-game slide to end the season costs N. C. State a bowl trip.
  • 2009: A five-win Duke team rolls in Carter-Finley, routing the Pack by 21 points. Duke's 49 points and margin of victory were season highs against FBS competition. State again finishes one win short of bowl eligibility. The Pack is just 11-14 in Russell Wilson's first two seasons.
  • 2010: TOB's best team wins nine games, but what could have been a truly historic season is undermined by losses to East Carolina and, again, Maryland. A win over Maryland on the last day of the season would have given the Pack a division title and a chance at their first conference championship since 1979. Duke, Wake Forest, and North Carolina have all won at least a share of the ACC championship since State's last title.
  • 2011: Road losses to Wake Forest and an absolutely brutal Boston College team cost TOB 10 wins and, once again, a shot at a division and conference title.
  • 2012: Pretty much every loss on the schedule, but particularly damning was losing 33-6 on homecoming to a Virginia team that came in riding a six-game losing streak.

Ugliness in Chart Form:

Year

Rushing YPC

FBS Rank

2007

3.02

110th

2008

3.62

86th

2009

3.46

103rd

2010

3.44

103rd

2011

3.04

115th

2012

3.07

114th

As you can see above, exactly one TOB team finished in the top 103 FBS teams in yards per carry.

Year

Sacks Allowed

FBS Rank

2007

2.33

82nd

2008

2.08

80th

2009

2.67

99th

2010

3.08

112th

2011

2.46

91st

2012

3.00

111th

Olé!

Year

Rivals' Recruiting Ranking (overall/ACC)

2008

31st/5th

2009

52nd/10th *

2010

34th/6th

2011

86th/12th *

2012

53rd/9th *

*Denotes that the class was ranked below Duke's.

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