November 8, 2005
RALEIGH -- After a 27-19 loss to Wake Forest on Oct. 22, N.C. State was 2-4 overall, 1-4 in the ACC and at a point where it had little to lose by making changes. That was at least part of the reason why sophomore Marcus Stone got a chance at quarterback and freshman Andre Brown got a chance at tailback.
Rarely in school history have two personnel changes had such a dramatic impact on a Wolfpack team. With Stone taking over for Jay Davis, and Brown becoming (for now) Lou Gehrig to Toney Baker's Wally Pipp, State turned its season around with a 21-17 win over Southern Miss and followed it up with a 20-15 shocker at Florida State.
The fascinating part was that coach Chuck Amato didn't just get a spark from a couple of backups who had been waiting for their opportunities to come. He basically reinvented this team in mid-stream.
State suddenly is committed to running the ball and running it some more, and requiring only that its quarterback not screw things up with turnovers and bad decisions. Coordinator Marc Trestman basically has shelved the West Coast Offense in favor of something that could pass for a Big Ten Offense, circa 1970.
With State's defense suddenly living up to its preseason billing, ball control, big plays and no mistakes quickly has become a formula for success.
The initial key to it all was Amato's decision to finally cut the cord with Davis and start Stone against Southern Miss. Amato had said all the right things about Davis and his guts and leadership ability, but it was clear to all by then that the team was going nowhere under Davis and would continue to go nowhere.
Davis had decent numbers, but that only verified Amato's longstanding notion that statistics are for losers. Davis was 7-10 in two seasons as the starting quarterback. Between the poor decisions, interceptions and freakish stuff that seemed to jinx him, State's offense never truly clicked. And despite all the nice things that have been said about Davis' character and leadership ability, nobody could have had any genuine confidence in him.
Going to Stone was an act of desperation to a degree, but it also served several purposes. It did give the entire offense a fresh outlook. It appeased fans who were coming down hard on Amato, even if that wasn't Amato's biggest motive. It was a calling-out of sorts for Stone, who had been highly recruited but had not developed as quickly as projected. In effect, it was put-up or shut-up time for Stone.
Stone seized the opportunity, even if he was shaky at times and certainly not spectacular. After a rocky start in the first half against Southern Miss, he did the things Davis didn't do -- he played with poise, made mostly good decisions, took care of the ball and basically didn't screw things up royally. He didn't force things. He ran the offense -- the new offense -- how Amato and Trestman wanted it run. One could see him growing into the job with each series, and one can assume that will continue for the rest of the season.
If the switch to Stone was the initial impetus, then the switch to Brown definitely was the move that made it all come together. State coaches knew long ago that Brown was a horse. But he found himself fifth in the pecking order early in the season, behind junior Reggie Davis, sophomores Darrell Blackman and Bobby Washington, and freshman Baker. That's an indictment of the system more than an indictment of Brown. Amato gave the first shots to the upperclassmen, and he had promised Baker an early shot at playing time.
It took some serendipity for Brown to get the chance when it finally came. State fell behind Southern Miss 7-0 after a Baker fumble set up the touchdown. Amato decided to sit Baker for a series and give Brown a shot. Brown responded with a 41-yard run on his first carry. He was over the 100-yard mark at halftime, went on to run for 248 -- three yards shy of Ted Brown's school record -- and had the job for another week.
Brown followed that up with a 26-carry, 179-yard effort in the win at FSU, going 65 yards for a touchdown on his first carry and setting the tone of the game for the rest of the day. With the lead, the new offense worked well. The combination of Brown's durability (58 carries in two games) and his big-play ability makes it all go.
State now can commit to pounding the ball and can also know that Brown can spring a long gainer at any moment. That has lifted everyone's spirits, especially a line that has come together recently in spite of some injuries and position changes.
At the same time, the defense has responded to Amato's challenges, particularly end Mario Williams and the rest of the line. Amato has been confident enough in the defense to put the game it its hands, as he did at the end of the FSU game, when he took a safety in the final minute.
State still has little margin for error during the rest of the season, with a trip to Boston College and home games against Middle Tennessee State and Maryland remaining. State must win two of those three to become bowl-eligible. Playing at BC will be difficult, Maryland has given State troubles in recent years, and State can't afford to stub its toe against an MTSU team that might be better than some realize.
But this is a rejuvenated team, and in terms of style, a reborn team. And as a reborn team, it is 2-0.
HOOPS: BETHEL'S INJURY UNSETTLING
Point guard Tony Bethel was scheduled to start practicing with the basketball team during the second week of November, after being held out of most drills over the first four weeks because of a lingering groin injury. He was hurt against Florida State in the ACC Tournament last March and basically has been rehabbing ever since.
State officials continue to say that they expect Bethel to be fine eventually, and that holding him out of the early stages of preseason practice was precautionary. But any injury that hasn't healed in six months probably won't fully heal in seven, or maybe even eight.
Even if Bethel gets a clean bill of health before the season opener, which would seem unlikely, he'll be playing catch-up to get into basketball shape and form. And he'll likely have the threat of re-injuring himself lingering in the back of his mind.
It's a shame for a player who has faced more than his share of adversity already. He was hurt for a significant portion of last season, after sitting out the previous year as a transfer. Beyond that, it has to be very unsettling for coach Herb Sendek in other ways.
Bethel is the quarterback, not a pure point guard but the closest thing Sendek has to one. State has other experienced backcourt players, junior Engin Atsur and senior Cameron Bennerman. But without Bethel, or with a hobbled Bethel, the ball-handling chores change significantly, and the whole flow of the offense changes. Ideally, Atsur and especially Bennerman are scorers, not ball-handlers.
It's the biggest story worth following in the early stages of the season.