In some ways, Saturday’s game at Mississippi State felt like a mulligan to the 2017 South Carolina game in Charlotte. A matchup between an NC State team brandishing some healthy preseason expectations and an unspectacular SEC team that provided the Pack an opportunity to put some people on notice. Against South Carolina, it gave up a 100-yard kickoff return to start the game and never had the lead for a second.
So how maddeningly poetic that, after all the buildup and brouhaha about this team and this game as an opportunity to show the world that it had something real to offer, all the reason to believe that it was different than the earlier teams that missed that opportunity, that it would start literally the exact same way, with a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.
The Pack had a chance to calm things down in the first 20 minutes when it crossed the Mississippi State 35-yard line three times. It scored three points on those three drives. State outgained the Bulldogs 106-5 in the first quarter and somehow trailed 7-0 at the end of it. If there was ever a stat to summarize why NC State has a hard time getting anyone to care about it, that’s it right there.
It’s just far too familiar of a refrain, this being the kind of result that just didn’t add up on paper, but irrationally you were terrified of watching for the umpteenth time. And there’s a reason that you can’t shake that feeling and just be confident that the better team will win the football game.
This is a perennial thing now, NC State just totally crapping itself in a meaningful early season road game. In 2016, it went to ECU and trailed 12-0 at the end of the first quarter. In 2017, it doubled South Carolina in yardage and lost. In 2018, in maybe the biggest game Doeren has coached in, State completely didn’t show up at all in Clemson. In 2019, it got blown out by a terrible West Virginia team, and in 2020 it got stomped by a very pedestrian Virginia Tech team.
Obviously, State was not supposed to win every one of those games, particularly not at Clemson, but that’s also illustrative of the more specific point being that it’s less about the loss and more about how it happened. State failed to be the aggressor in every single one of the games. It didn’t score first in any of them, and it spent the entirety of each trying to respond. It was on its heels from the get-go and it routinely squandered opportunities to change the trajectory of the game.
You have to set the tone in a road game, especially a road game when you’re supposed to be the better team. You do that by being poised and fundamentally sound, otherwise you can’t package away everything that comes with 50,000 people screaming at you and let your superior football skills take over. State was the exact opposite of poised on Saturday and it got the fate it deserved.
I don’t know how to explain the frequency with which the Pack shows up to these games with the yips other than to hypothesize that it just lacks mental toughness. That’s a top-down issue. The body language from the staff and the players on Saturday was just horrible, and there is something to be said about a team that moved the ball well on three of its first four drives and then just totally shut down the rest of the game after it didn’t score points on those drives.
This game doesn’t have to define the season, much like Virginia Tech did not define the season last year, but this type of game has unfortunately come to define a coaching staff that in truth is much better than the rep they have. It’s the rep they’ve earned though and that’s nobody else’s fault. You can’t complain about being underappreciated if you fumble every chance to prove you should be appreciated.
For all of Doeren’s accomplishments in Raleigh, many of which are mostly unprecedented, the perception of the program you want those accomplishments to drive is washed away by games like this, and State just can’t seem to escape them. It’s a brand driven sport, and State had a chance to put its brand on national television undefeated hosting Clemson. Now it’s just Clemson playing another middling ACC team. You’re crazy if you don’t think that stuff matters.
The suckiest part is that you really have reason to believe this should be different. State was a different team last year. It was the toughest team Doeren has had in Raleigh and almost all of it returned for this season. That, along with the completeness across the board, was supposed to be the line to draw between this and the 2017 and 2018 teams. It’s possible it still can be, but there’s a lot of work to get done.
State will have its opportunities to turn this game into an outlier, just as it had in the previous seasons. It has the power to make people forget this ever happened, but it’s not going to beat the teams that make that possible if it can’t stop leaving points on the field, dropping passes, fumbling the ball away, and everything else that was part of the assembly line of mistakes it showed us on Saturday.