NC State has had seven opportunities for game tying or game winning drives over the last two seasons. Seven times they moved the ball inside the opponent’s 30 yard line with less than two minutes to play. They scored zero times.
The Pack put a good team on the field in 2016. The 2017 product was one of the best teams since the turn of the millennium. A 16-10 record over those two years does little to justify the ceiling either of those teams had, and being 0 for 7 on game winning drives defines that gap. Thus, one of the big question marks surrounding this year’s team will be its ability to win tight games. And it’s likely they’ll be a lot of them.
This year’s team figures to be better equipped to deal with close games than either of the last two, largely because of the existence of a place kicker. If Chris Dunn, who might be the most anticipated freshman kicker in the history of college football, turns out to be even a decent kicker, the Pack is immediately in a better position to handle the prospect of a game winning drive.
Beyond that, State just needs to be more disciplined. A veteran team should not seem so panicky in the final moments of a close game. In two separate games last year, the Pack was hurt by a silly and unnecessary penalty in the final minute of one score game. These things seem small, but when driving to beat/tie a top 5 team and win your division, they can become what defines your season.
Another aspect of winning close games, and just games in general, that State has struggled with is converting in the red zone. Having a kicker will help this too, but what will really help is if the Pack can fix some of the mismanagement issues that killed red zone drives in several games over the last couple of years. Trick plays are fine, but not every other trip inside the 20. The wildcat is never fine. The Pack had a good and well-rounded offense last year, but this was undeniably a struggle spot.
Offensive Coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz has been open about how he’s evolved as a play caller since he came to Raleigh. If he and the staff could go ahead and evolve away halfback passes on the four yard line, that would be great.
Little errors at the tail end of productive drives like that can be the turning point in close games, and the Pack has actually been lucky that its red zone woes haven’t hurt them as bad as they could have. State has done a good job of taking advantage of matchups that favor them when they’re operating between the 20s. That seemed to happen less in the red zone last year. Obviously the philosophy has to change when the amount of turf in front of you prevents you from stretching the field. State needs to figure out what that philosophy is, and it can’t be “play the backup quarterback because they’re not expecting it.”
Outside of a fake field goal that everybody was pretty much fine with in a bowl, State avoided getting unnecessarily cute around the goal line in last year’s Sun Bowl. They ran right at a team they knew they could beat in the trenches. They scored 52 points and six rushing touchdowns. Only once after said fake field goal did they fail to score a touchdown in the red zone.
Maybe that means the coaches are figuring out the red zone. Maybe Arizona State just sucks. We’ll find out.
Based on the arrival of Chris Dunn and the whole concept of learning from your mistakes, there’s a lot of reason to be confident that this year’s team can improve significantly on these things. It’s the foundation for my personal belief that the 2018 team can win just as many or more games than last year’s, despite the loss of so many reliable players.
Clutch moments ended up defining the season in 2017. It probably will again in 2018. Outside of Clemson, anybody can probably beat anybody in an increasingly competitive Atlantic Division. There will be a lot of close games, which means that the season will once again come down to just a couple of plays. Here’s hoping State is the one making them this time.