November 1, 2004 RALEIGH Discipline? N.C. State coach Chuck Amato's choice for a one-word team slogan for 2004 gradually has proven to be about as ill-advised as his selection of footwear.
The Wolfpack's recent stinging defeat against Clemson, in which Amato's team had six turnovers and twice had touchdown passes called back because of illegal procedure penalties, may forever serve as the bellwether game for just how undisciplined Amato's teams can be.
This is not news. The Wolfpack is only 23 flags away from its third consecutive season of at least 100 penalties, which was an outrageous number even as the Pack played 14 and 13 games, respectively. It's almost incomprehensible that Amato's team could reach triple figures in just 11 contests this year, but it's all a byproduct of the ultra-aggressive mentality the coach proudly brought with him from Florida State.
In Amato's first four years in Raleigh, the Wolfpack never finished in the upper half of the ACC statistics in fewest penalties per game, and it is poised to finish last in the league for the second consecutive season.
The ones that were most difficult for NCSU fans to digest against the Tigers were a pair of illegal procedure penalties on first-time starter Jon Holt at offensive tackle. Filling in for the injured Derek Morris, Holt twice failed to get up to the line of scrimmage on plays during the Wolfpack's final drive of the first half. Freshman receiver John Dunlap made touchdown catches after both snaps, but they were called back because of the penalties, and the points were taken off the board.
The end-of-the-half drive concluded with Clemson cornerback Justin Miller intercepting a Jay Davis pass in the end zone, leaving the Wolfpack with no points at all. A more successful sequence for the Pack could have been a defining moment in the game, since State got possession of the ball at the beginning of the second half.
Amato was so upset at the penalties that he went up another octave in his television halftime interview with ESPN2. Dogs in the Upstate had to be in severe pain.
And then there were the turnovers. Lots and lots of turnovers. Davis, a redshirt junior, had five interceptions by himself. That included one on the final play of the game, when remarkably, considering all the mistakes the Wolfpack still had an opportunity to win. Of course, that may be more of an indictment of Clemson's mediocrity than a positive sign for the Pack.
"I've never seen anything like it," Amato said.
Davis' first interception went right into the gut of Clemson defensive tackle Eric Coleman. He ran it back 20 yards for a touchdown that gave the Tigers a 7-3 lead. The Tigers, who went into the game just as hapless as the Wolfpack in the turnover department, ended up getting 16 of their 26 points as a direct result of State's turnovers.
In the seven games before playing State, Clemson had not scored a single point off an opponent's turnover. The Tigers had intercepted only four passes all season long, and they were ranked 113th in the nation in turnover margin before Davis spread his joy around Death Valley.
Amato was clear in all of his post-game interviews about whom to blame for all the team's mistakes.
"Don't blame our youngsters," he said. "Blame Chuck Amato."
OK, that seems fair. Amato is responsible for bringing in the players who made the mistakes and not coaching them better. Amato also is responsible for creating a style-over-substance program that has generated lots of buzz and hype, but produced very little beyond two upset wins over FSU and the 2002 Gator Bowl victory over Notre Dame. Otherwise, the Wolfpack hasn't finished better than fourth in the ACC in his first four seasons at the school, and the team isn't likely to do any better this year.
Davis just makes too many poor decisions that kill the offense. Upon further review, even some of his successes are suspect. On the last drive against the Tigers, for example, he threw a pass to wide receiver Brian Clark with four Clemson defenders surrounding Clark. The receiver made a great catch to extend the drive, but there had to be a better option somewhere on the field, with all those defensive backs so close to Clark.
The clock management at the end of the game, with nearly 30 seconds wasted, is another potentially serious problem. Perhaps the most telling moment of the game was the television shot that showed Amato screaming "What the **** is going on out there?" as Davis tried to get the team lined up for the fateful final play.
One Explanation: Staff Turnover
Predictably, some of the post-game chatter centered around the many different ways Amato can clean house after the season. One popular scenario among fans involved getting rid of second-year assistant Noel Mazzone for yet another coordinator. Mazzone is Amato's third offensive coordinator in five years.
That solution may be short-sighted, though. Arguably, one of the biggest reasons for this team's discipline problems is the unusually high turnover rate (the highest in the ACC) on the coaching staff under Amato. Over the last four years, an average of two coaches per season have left for various reasons. That's not a good reflection on the head coach, who tends to be a bit of a micro-manager on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball, and who demands all-hours dedication on the recruiting trail.
So, no, blaming Amato for the current state of Wolfpack football isn't too difficult.
Keep in mind, however, that the coach did energize a moribund fan base, got approval for and helped raise money for more than $100 million in renovations to Carter-Finley Stadium, and has been a proud spokesman for a university he obviously loves dearly. He's also lured enough big-time athletes to allow the Wolfpack to compete with any of the top teams in the nation.
His team obviously has talent and depth. It still could have beaten the Tigers, despite missing three starters on the offensive line prior to the game and the loss of its top rusher (junior T.A. McLendon) and top receiver (Richard Washington) during the game. That's an unusual load of talent for a school that has only a few stretches above mediocrity in its 100-year history. And, despite Davis' mistakes at quarterback, the Wolfpack has out-gained every team it has played this year.
Similarly, the few State fans who are calling for Amato's head (and oversized ego) on a platter also are being more than a little short-sighted. State still can become bowl-eligible by winning two of its last three games, home contests against Georgia Tech and FSU and a neutral-site match against hapless East Carolina in Charlotte over Thanksgiving.
But Amato is correct to blame himself and his coaching staff for the mistakes. There have been too many different people telling the players what to do, and not enough enforcement of discipline on the field.
Amato has to make some changes, but that doesn't mean he should clear house and start from scratch. What this team needs, besides straight-out discipline, is some continuity of staff. It would be nice to see even a couple of seasons without questions about who will be the next offensive coordinator, or whether Amato will hire a defensive coordinator, or who will fill the long-standing opening as defensive line coach, etc.
Who would have ever thought that Wolfpack fans would hope that Amato could somehow match the coaching genius of Herb Sendek, the reigning ACC men's basketball coach of the year?