Each Sunday, Dave Doeren gathers his team to talk about expectations. He reviews the results of the previous week’s game and looks ahead to what’s still in store. He talks about goals and how many NC State still has within reach. It’s an important conversation for a team that hasn’t won an ACC game in nearly two years.
When he took the job, Doeren knew it might be a long road before NC State blossomed into the program he envisioned, but a year-and-a-half into his tenure, it’s hard not to be a little frustrated.
“I just hate losing,” Doeren said. “Our guys are working hard. We’ve got to play better, coach better.”
The Wolfpack lost for the 11th straight time in ACC play last week, falling 30-14 to Boston College to further evaporate the optimism that a 4-0 start to the season had created.
The peak came in the first quarter against Florida State three weeks ago. NC State looked impressive, jumping out to a 24-7 lead on the defending national champions. But in the 11 quarters since then, the Wolfpack have been outscored 120-31 and this Saturday's battle with Louisville — home to the nation’s top-ranked defense — threatens to extend the misery.
But there are still those talks on Sundays, and for all the frustration and diminishing patience, Doeren insists those are still positive conversations.
“Every goal we have is still out there,” he said. “Nobody’s panicking here; nobody’s pressuring us. I just hate losing. That’s it.”
NC State’s 11-game conference slide is the longest for an ACC team since Duke lost 24 in a row from 2004 through 2007, and Doeren understands the growing sense of frustration. It’s a team desperately in need of a break, but one that hasn’t gotten much help from the football gods.
A week before NC State played FSU, Heisman winner Jameis Winston had been suspended for a game. Against the Wolfpack, he threw for 365 yards and four touchdowns.
A week after Clemson pummeled NC State, rising star QB Deshaun Watson broke his hand. Against the Wolfpack though, Watson was dynamic.
Even this week, Louisville is set to get its star receiver, DeVante Parker, back from injury for the first time this season. NC State, meanwhile, will be short seven players because of suspensions.
The Wolfpack and Louisville are the only two ACC teams to have played eight straight games to open the season, and NC State’s gauntlet of a schedule has only highlighted its weaknesses. It’s been a tough road, but Doeren isn’t interested in the excuses.
“We’ve gotten everybody’s best,” Doeren said, “which is what you want as a coach.”
But what he’d also really like is a win — just one to get the ball rolling.
To their credit, Doeren said his players haven’t lost hope. The suspensions, related to a BB gun incident, are disappointing, but a lesson learned, he said. On the practice field, the energy and focus has been as strong as ever.
“We’re practicing well,” Doeren said. “Guys had great energy. They’re good. The suspensions were guys being immature away from here, but that doesn’t correlate with how they’ve been practicing.”
And it’s not hard to see how the strong practices and energy can lead to wins. That first quarter against Florida State should have been a springboard. Instead, it’s been an anchor.
Quarterback Jacoby Brissett was playing as well as anyone in the country until two second-half turnovers against the Seminoles unraveled the game. He made highlights that night, darting out of trouble to make big plays downfield, but he’s also fumbled six times when hit in the backfield. It’s a perfect example of the delicate balance NC State has been unable to capture, but also a reminder of how much his players desperately want that first ACC win.
“He’s mad. He wants to win. Who doesn’t?” Doeren said of Brissett’s approach. “But he’s handled it great. ‘What can I do, what do I have to do, what should I have done?’ He’s in. He wants to play well, he wants to help his team, he wants to get us to a bowl game.”
Doeren believes that’s the mentality each of each of his players. The Wolfpack are just two wins from a bowl, but those victories will have to come in ACC play, and that means turning around a losing streak that’s extended far longer than anyone might have predicted.
Yes, NC State is a team in need of a few breaks going its way, but Doeren knows if his team is to reach some of those goals they discuss each Sunday, the first step is to simply play better.
“When we play well enough to earn [an ACC win], we’ll get one,” Doeren said. “I hate losing, period, but we just haven’t earned one yet.”