NC State defensive tackle Natanu Mageo was on his way to class on Monday when he heard a classmate yell out “Four-and-oh!”
It didn’t take long for the rest of Raleigh to appreciate NC State’s undefeated September.
“I didn’t notice until today that everybody is all hyped up,” Mageo said. “It’s good for us; it gives us a lot of confidence.”
The key now is not to get overconfident. NC State is off to its first 4-0 start since 2002 and is ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 for the first time since Sept. 7, 2003 – the Philip Rivers era. It’s the best start since coach Tom O’Brien was hired four years ago, but the success brings a new challenge – being able to handle it. It won’t get any easier this weekend, as NC State hosts a Virginia Tech team that has pushed the Pack to the fourth quarter in almost every game in the past eight meetings. With last year’s 38-10 loss to the Hokies being the exception, this series has been excitingly close. An average of only 2.7 points has separated the programs in the previous seven meetings.
“There’s still room for improvement and we need to try not to let the spotlight take us away from our approach to the game,” Mageo said. “We still have to work hard. It starts in practice, in the weight room, and off the field in the classroom. We still have to maintain our focus.”
That’s exactly the attitude O’Brien is expecting.
He allowed his team to celebrate its 45-28 win against defending ACC champ Georgia Tech until it walked onto the field at 6 p.m. on Sunday for the next practice. At that point, it was time to move on.
“I think that it’s all part of them understanding where they are and how they got here, how they have to continue what they’ve done through the past month,” O’Brien said. “If they don’t, they’re not going to be able to continue winning football games. Certainly the opposition steps up this week when Tech comes to town, but we’ve gotten really great leadership out of the captains thus far. We’ll find out if they’re mature enough to handle it or not. The proof won’t come until Saturday afternoon.”
During his 10 seasons at Boston College, O’Brien only started out 4-0 once, in 1999. O’Brien has never started 5-0 in his career. Part of the turnaround this year can be attributed to improved health and depth – particularly on the offensive lines.
In Saturday’s win at Georgia Tech, the defensive line was able to substitute on almost every other series, with the four starters seeing 40 snaps each and the four second-team players each seeing 26 snaps. Ten players rotated on the offensive line.
To compare the numbers to last season, only seven players rotated on the offensive line in the fourth game of the season (against Pitt) and although nine got in on the defensive line, only four played more than 12 plays.
“The good news is that on the first of October we’ve still got the same team basically we started the first of September, which we haven’t had in the past,” O’Brien said. “Knock on wood we stay healthy and keep going, we might win a few more football games.”
That’s exactly what ranked teams do.