NC State has carved out a detailed niche through the years and has committed to it, like any good method actor:
- The Wolfpack will field excellent athletes and individual playmakers.
- They will scare really good teams.
- They will suffer the type of letdowns against lesser teams that really good teams never quite suffer.
- They will never quite put all the pieces together.
The school has employed Lou Holtz and Monte Kiffin. Four former Wolfpack quarterbacks — Russell Wilson, Philip Rivers, Mike Glennon, Jacoby Brissett — are making lots of money in the NFL. Former State receiver Torry Holt is one of the NFL's best ever. The school produces a top-10 draft pick about every five years.
Still, sustained success at anything beyond the seven- or eight-win level has been elusive.
The Wolfpack have finished ranked just six times in 40 years and have never finished in the top 10. Ever. Only once have they won more than nine games.
When Dave Doeren came to campus in 2013, then, he took on one of the strangest jobs in FBS. You can recruit reasonably well. You can win some games. But you're going to have to deal with a fan base that is justifiably impatient. Law of averages suggests that this school is capable of top-10 seasons, but it's never, ever happened.
Doeren hasn't made it happen, either, but State's 2017 has gotten much more interesting in recent weeks.
First, there was the 27-21 win over Florida State.
It came with an asterisk, sure — the Noles hosted the Wolfpack after a three-week FSU hiatus (due to Hurricane Irma) and with a freshman quarterback starting his first game (due to Deondre Francois’ injury). But you’ll forgive State fans if they’re not too particular about how their big wins come. It was Doeren’s first win over a ranked team and helped to erase the sting of getting Deebo Samuel’d in the opening-week loss to South Carolina.
Then came Thursday night.
State welcomed Louisville and reigning Heisman winner Lamar Jackson to town for the season’s first truly interesting Thursday game since Week 1, and both the team and the home crowd brought their A-games in a 39-25 win.
This was a nearly perfect showcase for what State has been in the Doeren years. The Wolfpack gave Jackson his yards — 354 in 26 completions, 97 in 15 non-sack rushes — but sacked him four times, hurried him five more times, and all but forced him to win single-handedly. Louisville running backs gained just 43 yards, and while UL created seven scoring opportunities, the Cardinals scored only three touchdowns, settled for two field goals, punted once, and turned the ball over on downs late.
At the same time, the State offense was moving with all the efficiency we’ve come to expect. Ryan Finley completed 65 percent of his passes, Jaylen Samuels and Nyheim Hines combined to touch the ball 30 times (21 carries and nine receptions, which gained a combined 221 yards), and breakout sophomore Kelvin Harmon caught six balls for 133 yards.
Louisville was able to stay in the game a while because the Pack converted only two of their first scoring opportunities into touchdowns, but eventually State built some distance.
The Wolfpack are finishing games now.
They are 3-0 in the ACC for the first time since their great 2002 campaign, when Rivers led them to their only 11-win season and a No. 12 final ranking. The ACC’s divisions are random and cruel (and pointless) — despite beating FSU and Louisville, State will still probably have to knock off defending national champion Clemson to reach the conference title game — but whether conference title dreams are realistic or not, this is beginning to look like the breakout campaign we thought Doeren had in him but hadn’t seen yet.
I placed NC State 17th in my preseason power rankings, and in this summer’s preview, I mentioned that a breakout was conceivable. I was bullish on the Wolfpack despite the obvious potential pratfalls:
Every fan base deserves that feeling of breakthrough occasionally, and that makes the NC State job a tricky one. [...]
Is there a chance for a breakthrough? Absolutely. Few teams can boast this level of experience, and the combination of Eliah Drinkwitz’s positionless offense with a dynamite front seven gives the Wolfpack a combination of uniqueness and proven quality. They nearly beat the two best teams on this year’s schedule last year, and they get a revenge opportunity against Louisville.
Despite the early loss to South Carolina, you can see a special season taking shape in Raleigh.
Of course, State could also lose to Pitt next week. Again, they don’t stray too far from their niche very often.
But the team is mature and exciting. The crowd is into it. And Clemson comes to town in a month. This could be a thrill.