A year after going winless in conference play, NC State wrapped up the regular season with a 7-5 record and a berth in the BITCOIN St. Petersburg Bowl against UCF. We talked with Wolfpack head coach Dave Doeren last week about the improvement of his team down the stretch and the big win against North Carolina to end the season.
At the end of October, you were riding a four-game losing streak and had lost 12 straight in ACC play, but by the end of November, you were playing your best football of the year. How much changed in that last month of the season?
Dave Doeren: We won three of our last four, and I really feel like our last two games against Wake and UNC, we were dominating in all three phases. We got better after the stretch [of losses]. We played pretty good against Florida State and lost, and we played pretty good against Louisville and lost. We’re a seven-win team that really had a chance to win nine games. Georgia Tech and Clemson we didn’t, but the others we did, and to finish the way we did, dominating the lines of scrimmage in both games, I was really proud of our players.
You have talked a lot about the challenges of having such a young team, but that those players managed to bounce back from a really rough stretch midseason has to speak highly of their maturation, right?
Doeren: Yeah, we had a team meeting where I thanked our seniors for just that, keeping the guys together. The younger players followed their leadership, and I told our staff that they did a great job keeping the ship the way it needed to be kept. Guys that wanted to win were willing to throw it in there and compete, and [it] showed in the small victories as we went through that process and came out of it playing pretty good football.
Early on, it seemed like if Jacoby Brissett was playing well, the team played well. But down the stretch, it looked like you found a little more diversity offensively, playing a bit more physical and using the run game. Is that a fair assessment?
Doeren: I’ve been searching for balance ever since I got here. We had it throughout the season in most of our games. When you get behind the way we did in the Clemson game or the second half of Georgia Tech, it forces your hand. The only game I thought we abandoned who we were was Boston College. We got in a throwing mode too much. Since that game, I think our offensive staff has really done a great job of game-planning and being balanced and using Shad Thornton or Matt Dayes throughout the game, and David Grinnage in the play-action game and finding some hits for Bryan Underwood or getting Bo Hines the ball in the slot. They just used their personnel and really found the identity I want to have as a running football team that can control the clock. We’ve been able to find that.
Hakim Jones made some headlines with his comments about playing physical against North Carolina, and QB Marquise Williams in particular. I’m sure you weren’t thrilled with the bulletin-board material, but does it speak to your team’s progress that they actually went out and backed up those comments with their performance on the field?
Doeren: The first thing I did when I heard the comment was I called him and [said], 'You better back it up.' I respect Marquise Williams a lot. He’s a really good player. And I think Hakim does, too, but he got in the moment of the press conference and he definitely said what he was thinking, but he didn’t need to say it. But he backed it up, and the guys supported him. That’s not something I want to repeat, but I’m glad they did back it up, because those moments can go the other way on you in a hurry. Our defensive kids played really good football in that game. We dominated the line of scrimmage, we tackled well, and they were physical when they got there.
The other big issue you had midseason was the suspension of several key players for an off-field incident. Was that a turning point in giving those players a little bit of an eye-opening experience and getting some young guys game-day reps?
Doeren: That game was a really big learning experience for those kids that had to sit out. They had to earn their way back into the lineup, and they did. But it allowed some other kids to get out there and play, which in turn helped our depth. Bradley Chubb and Airius Moore got some really big playing time because of it, and I think when you ask about our improvement, it’s our coaching staff and players working together and buying into that process that you have to practice and prepare well to play well. As a young team, sometimes guys don’t understand how hard you need to practice, but by the end of the season we were a very different football team when it came to the effort we were giving on a daily basis on the practice field.