September 13, 2006
RALEIGH -- Every college football team still is trying to iron out the wrinkles at this time of the season. But at N.C. State, the wrinkles keep showing up in the weirdest places, and at the most inopportune times.
Of all the questions facing the Wolfpack as it proceeds into the meat of the 2006 schedule -- even above the issue of whether Marcus Stone will develop into a passer or is prone to inconsistency, even above the issue of whether the defense is pretty good or just good until it really matters -- one question stands above all others that could determine its fate.
Is this team and this program destined to continue to make boneheaded plays that just defy explanation -- make that, explanations other than coach Chuck Amato's bizarre rationalizations? Is this a team and a program that will continue to shoot itself in the foot time and time again, to the point that winnable games turn into losses and losses turn into embarrassments?
Eventually, someone will have to determine the real reason and the real solution to it all, because the trend continues through different seasons with different players and different coaching staffs in different games and situations.
Hollywood script writers couldn't dream up some of the things State teams have done in recent years. The trademark of this program is not Amato's shades or the Florida recruiting pipeline or the Walk of Champions, it's fair-catches at the one-yard line and excessive-celebration penalties that lead to losses.
That's what happened in the 20-17 loss to Akron.
Akron's 67-yard, game-winning touchdown drive in the final minute was aided by a 15-yard penalty after State tailback Jamelle Eugene scored with 1:07 left to put the Wolfpack ahead 17-14. Eugene wasn't just joined in the end zone by his 10 offensive teammates, he was joined by many of those not in the game who raced down to the end zone from the State bench. At least one of the celebrants also had his helmet off, another big no-no in college football.
The 15-yard penalty was enforced on the ensuing kickoff, forcing John Deraney to kick from the 20. His kickoff went all the way to the 10 and was returned to the 33. But as Amato later pointed out, the same kickoff without the penalty would have sailed five yards deep into the end zone. Akron would have had to go 80 yards in the final minute, not 67. The Zips scored on Dennis Kennedy's one-yard run with no time left on the clock.
Amato's post-game reaction to questions about the excessive-celebration penalty?
"It's been addressed. It's been addressed," Amato said. "But you know what, I told these players, you want to blame somebody for it, blame me. Blame me. Don't blame so and so and so and so and so and so.
"You know what? In college, you've got 18- and 22-year-olds. Imagine the excitement. What was the down and distance when Jamelle caught the pass? Fourth and five? Fourth and four? He catches a swing pass, he goes into the end zone to put us ahead, our defense is playing their brains out, and we're holding people back. There's not enough of us. Because that just happens. Because they're excited.
"And then they realized when they saw the flags fly that they did wrong. But they were excited, about the way the team came back and answered the phone. That's why they're student-athletes."
PUNT PLAYS REINFORCE PROBLEMS
A few points to consider:
No question, Amato was trying to do the right thing and shield his players from criticism in his press conference. He couldn't afford to come out and blame the guilty parties, because no coach can do that. But when he stands up and says, "blame me" for such things, he invites that angry mob of passionate Wolfpack fans to do exactly that. Amato always has had enough self-confidence to weather any storm, but if in fact he ever does come under serious fire from the people in power at NCSU, it probably will be because of the constant craziness that suggests his teams are undisciplined and poorly coached.
Also, while this "kids will be kids" rationalization tugs at the emotional heartstrings, State continues to do things that you don't even see very often in pee wee or high school football. A recent example: State partially blocked two Akron punts. After both, something happened so bizarre that it made everyone in the stands shake their heads in amazement.
State forced Akron to punt from the State 47 on the first series of the game. DaJuan Morgan raced in to partially deflect the punt, and it would up rolling toward the sideline at the State 30. But shortly before officials were about to blow the play dead and give State possession at the 30, Morgan raced downfield, picked the ball up, and started running backward. He was tackled for a six-yard loss, giving State possession at the 24.
Then, in the fourth quarter, with State leading 10-7, J.C. Neal broke through to get his hand on an Akron punt from the Akron 15. The ball traveled forward eight yards, but instead of letting the ball roll dead, Littleton Wright fought through a pile in an attempt to make a return. The ball popped around, and State risked Wright's return attempt as being ruled a fumble.
That didn't come back to haunt State the way the excessive-celebration penalty did, but it was just as perplexing to anyone who saw it happen.
Even Amato admitted his frustration over such freak plays.
"There's a level, whoever, and I don't know why," Amato said. "We work on it so much. They want to catch it and run for a touchdown. I mean, we think they understand it. But it happened in the first half, and it happened in the second half, even though they recovered the ball or whatever."
"Or whatever" said it all.
State teams do this, or that, or whatever, and they continue to do whatever it is you assume college football players should inherently know not to do.
Penalties have been another trademark of the program. Amato was encouraged by the fact that State committed only three for a total of 20 yards in the season-opening win over Appalachian State. But then State committed nine for 82 yards against Akron -- including the one that should have been avoided easily, the one that set the stage for Akron's game-winning drive.
What is the real problem? Is the problem that kids will be kids? Is the problem that the coaches don't teach well enough and drive home the importance of fundamentals well enough? Is the problem that State recruits physically gifted players that aren't necessarily smart football players, or don't have standard football instincts? Is the problem that State is just snake-bitten by continually freakish occurrences?
It's hard to think that the answer is yes to all of those questions, but clearly the answer is yes to one or more of them. Even though Amato's practices are closed, one has to believe that the coaches stress fundamentals and try to cover all situations that can arise during the course of a game.
But one thing is easy to answer. If these kinds of bonehead plays continue to be the trademark of the program, the program is in trouble.