I didn’t have the score exactly right—I predicted 33-20 and the final was 34-23—but my comments from the Twitter-style game prediction ring true: “Never really in doubt, but not decisive enough to remove so many doubts.” N.C. State had questions at quarterback going into its “blackout” game against plucky visitor Ball State. Questions remain. Worse yet, the Pack have mounting injury issues heading into their ACC opener next weekend at Florida State. At least the defense somewhat redeemed itself after last week’s soiling of the bed at West Virginia. And, rather than giving up a pivotal punt block like last week, the special teams shined, getting a punt block of their own and a return for a TD. Isn’t that special!
The porous Ball State defense came into the contest allowing over 300 yards per game through the air, but Matthew McKay managed just 175 yards and was picked for the first time in his career. McKay failed to throw for a TD. There were a couple of drops—a recurring theme—but, while four starts into his career is a small sample, McKay’s low completion percentage and continued misses on deep balls suggest that he’s simply not a playmaker. Bailey Hockman got one series of non-garbage action but was pulled after an interception even though Tabari Hines dropped a well-thrown pass, leading to the pick. Hockman showed some wheels—and I’m not sure he’s not every bit as mobile if not more so than McKay—on a 20-yard scramble. We have a QB controversy brewing, and when you have a QB controversy, you don’t have a QB.
Speaking of the run, State ran for 204 yards and averaged five yards per rush, but Zonovan Knight and Ricky Person are both less than 100%. Knight left with a hamstring injury (and judging from the band he was wearing, he entered with one as well), and Person continually favored his back after runs. One of State’s deepest positions suddenly seems thin, but Jordan Houston may be up to the task as the featured back. He gained 55 yards on just six carries, and his 25-yard run was the Pack’s longest play from scrimmage. Houston also had a 15-yard reception.
The injury bug doesn’t end at the RB position, as three of the State’s four captains—James Smith-Williams, Nick McCloud, and Dylan Autenrieth—missed the game with injury. Despite the continued absence of Smith-Williams and McCloud, two of the team’s most veteran defenders, the Pack held Drew Plitt without a TD. He had thrown 11 touchdowns in Ball State’s first three games. The Cardinals were also limited to just 2.8 yards per carry. Run the ball; stop the run. That’s some Dave Doeren football right there.
Outside of a 14-point second quarter, the Pack offense largely took the day off, but thankfully the special teams was, well, special. Thayer Thomas took a line-drive punt back 76 yards for a score in the third to put the Pack up 27-7. It seemed that it was time to get giddy. Ball State was about to get beat down. Sports are good! But State failed to score again until the fourth quarter when Max Fisher blocked a punt that set up a seven-yard TD drive. By then, Ball State had crept to within 11 points. The Cardinals closed to within 11 again and recovered an onside kick, but Chris Ingram’s interception in the endzone finally put the game to bed.
I believe that NC State has everything it needs inside the locker room to be a good football team. It’s just a matter of getting experience and good health. I don’t know how long that will take, and it might not be this year. But right now we’re a team that beat Ball State by one more point than Indiana and Florida Atlantic did. Those are not good football teams. Even with all the turnover on offense and on the coaching staff, State shouldn’t be in the same conversation with Indiana and Florida Atlantic in year seven of the Doeren regime.