It was possible, if you turned the lights down low and squinted a little bit, to look at N.C. State’s offense in the opening win at Connecticut as a mirage. A bare-bones playbook, a vanilla approach, all designed to do just enough to win and keep as much of the new offense hidden from Notre Dame as possible.
Unfortunately for the Wolfpack, there didn’t appear to be much to reveal. Some of that was scheme. Some of it was talent. Some of it was strategy. None of it looked particularly good in anything other than flashes.
Notre Dame has, over the course of its now 29-game regular-season winning streak against the ACC, made better teams look worse than this, but we’re two weeks into the season and the Wolfpack’s retooled offense already needs retooling after a 45-24 thumping by the Irish. The benefit of the doubt has been lost.
Bringing in veteran quarterback Brennan Armstrong and Robert Anae, the offensive coordinator with whom he had so much success at Virginia, was supposed to inject new life into a stale system, but there’s only so much anyone can do when Armstrong is running for his life or his passes bounce off the hands of a receiving corps that has done absolutely nothing to disabuse anyone of the notion that it was the Wolfpack’s weakest link. Notre Dame’s secondary offered very little space, but other than one diving Keyon Lesane catch, the Irish won almost every 50-50 ball.
Armstrong threw one interception into coverage, another off a wide-open receiver’s hands and after that the third was pure frustration, a late no-hope throw over the middle. He’s still looking for his first win in the state of North Carolina as a starter, home or away.
Porter Rooks was benched and placed in witness protection until garbage time after his second glaring drop helped dig an early hole, Concepcion’s hands and possibly facemask picked up an assist on Notre Dame’s second pick and Bradley Rozner, another incoming transfer, caught a touchdown but had a glaring drop of his own.
“Just basic things,” N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said. “Throw and catch. We’re not getting it done to the ability level that we have.”
And still the Wolfpack had to throw the ball 47 times, because the running game was even less effective.
While it’s easy to point fingers at the offense, Doeren made it perfectly clear he doesn’t trust it, either. Two punts from the Notre Dame side of the 50 turned into immediate Irish touchdowns (one “immediately” after a nearly two-hour weather break) and a decision not to go for it on 4th-and-2 after the Wolfpack’s defense gave the offense great field position by forcing a Sam Hartman fumble was rewarded with a field-goal miss from 34 yards.
It’s almost like players can sense when you’re playing not to lose instead of playing to win. That was certainly the case by the end of last season, when N.C. State was out of quarterbacks to run an offense that had long ago worn out its welcome. With offensive coordinator Tim Beck leaving to become the head coach at Coastal Carolina, this was supposed to be a fresh start. A new day. Instead of brain drain, brain gain.
But even as the names and faces change, the problems all seem to stay the same.
We were sold the 2021 Virginia Brennan Armstrong offense, and so far we’ve gotten the 2014 Wake Forest John Wolford offense instead, which is memorable mainly for the fact that Wolford survived after taking an incredible game-after-game beating. Wolford had three more years to get better. N.C. State has three months.
The good news for N.C. State, such as it is, is that these two opening performances have left an enormous amount of room for improvement, and some of the personnel issues will sort themselves out. Rooks’ miscues already opened the door for lively freshman Juice Vereen. Surely more of an attempt will be made to run the ball than Saturday’s token six carries for running backs, against less imposing defensive fronts.
The next two opponents — Virginia Military and struggling, grieving Virginia in a Friday night homecoming for Armstrong — should offer more of an opportunity to build confidence and momentum than Notre Dame did, grinding out the teeth of yet another hopeful ACC opponent with the heel of its pointy leprechaun shoe.
The defense has work to do as well, after showing a frightening propensity to give up big plays — 230 of Notre Dame’s 456 yards came on a mere four plays — but nothing compared to an offense that was supposed to be something new, and was a very old story instead.
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