September 20, 2004 RALEIGH In case you missed it, here's the nice little swipe Ohio State coach Jim Tressel recently took at N.C. State coach Chuck Amato and the Wolfpack's preparation for the post-Philip Rivers era.
"They had a young quarterback in there," Tressel said, referring to Wolfpack junior Jay Davis. "He hadn't been hit. They played two weeks ago in a game that was less difficult than a practice. They really had not been in a slugging match yet. We'd had two. That was part of it."
In fact, that was just about all of it. Davis, who played only the first half of the Wolfpack's season-opening win against Division I-AA Richmond, wasn't prepared to play against the No. 9 team in the country.
But, unlike last year, the schedule worked out just as Amato wanted. For those who had their hearing aid turned down during calendar year 2003, Amato was upset that the ACC didn't give N.C. State the week off it requested prior to last year's game at Ohio State. Instead, the league's master schedule-maker sent State to Wake Forest to open its ACC season.
The Wolfpack, which opened the 2003 season with an easy victory over Division I-AA Western Carolina, lost to the Demon Deacons with tailback T.A. McLendon on the bench nursing a knee injury. Amato harped on that unfulfilled request all year long.
This year, the schedule was set up just as Amato planned, and things still didn't work out. After the game, halfback Tramain Hall agreed that Davis needed more competition against a decent opponent before he was ready to perform against a defense the caliber of Ohio State's.
"I think so," Hall said, when asked if Davis needed more preparation. "When you have games under your belt, it won't do anything but do you good."
"That is part of the growing pains," Amato said.
Davis admitted to being overly anxious for his second career start, trying to do everything perfectly in front of a rabid sold-out crowd and a national television audience.
"I got some experience, but it wasn't the kind I wanted," Davis said. "The turnovers came from trying to do too much, trying to force balls in there. I think we have to go out there, make sure I am fully prepared going into the game."
That might have happened if Amato hadn't tried so hard to play games with the schedule for the last two years.
Sideshow: McLendon's Wild Ride
Amato played another little game on the Thursday before the game against Ohio State, having McLendon taken off the practice field in a golf cart in full view of the media. It certainly created a stir on the internet, as Wolfpack fans fretted for two days over yet another injury to their star running back.
But like so many of the things Amato does, it was just a cutesy trick. The coach had promised McLendon that if he made it through four days of practice without getting hurt, he would cart him off the field on the last day of practice to make sure he didn't pull a hamstring walking back to the Murphy Center. The players seem to love the coach's sense of humor. Most media and some fans aren't as impressed.
Amato was taken aback that it caused such a stir, saying in his post-game interview: "Nobody even bothered to ask me what was happening."
Anyway, McLendon, except for his fumble at the beginning of the second half, played well against the Buckeyes. He had a 31-yard ramble to set up the Wolfpack's first touchdown and scored on an 11-yard run. He ended up with 94 yards on 15 carries, while sitting out for much of the first quarter, when rookies Bobby Washington (impressive before getting hurt) and Darrell Blackman (unimpressive) got snaps.
Amato said he now expects McLendon to be healthy for the rest of the season.
"I think all of (McLendon's) struggles are behind him as far as injuries are concerned," Amato said.
Big Concerns: Discipline, Penalties
Looking across the north grandstand from the press box at Carter-Finley Stadium, one can see the tower at the Wolfpack's practice facility about a half-mile away. There, in 10-foot letters, is the single-word motto for this year's football team: "Discipline."
That is apparently what Amato is going to have to dole out to his players, after their mistake-laden performance against Ohio State. The turnovers were bad, but Amato also is concerned about overly aggressive penalties, which did as much to hurt the Wolfpack's chances of beating the offensively inept Buckeyes as the five turnovers.
Some might question the competence of the Big Ten officiating crew rest assured, Wolfpack fans already have in droves but not all of the 14 flags that resulted in 121 penalty yards were thrown to give the Buckeyes an advantage.
Last year, the Wolfpack hit triple figures in penalties for the second year in a row, with an even 100 for an average of 69.8 yards per game. That was last in the league, by a full five yards per game. It appears that Amato's team is headed there again this year.
Defense Looks Markedly Improved
With all of the mistakes made by the Wolfpack, it was almost easy to overlook the biggest positive to come out of the game, the performance of the State defense.
Admittedly, Ohio State is offensively conservative. Last year, the Buckeyes managed 317 yards against an NCSU team that finished ranked seventh in the ACC and 89th in the country in total defense, allowing 421 yards per game. The Buckeyes had just 44 rushing yards on 32 carries in that game in Columbus, which was extended by three overtimes.
This year, the Wolfpack defense stuffed OSU throughout the game, allowing an average of just 2.2 yards per play and only 64 net yards rushing on 40 carries. Here's the most amazing stat: Ohio State's six scoring drives averaged just 12.5 yards. Basically, after the Pack offense gave up a turnover or some other mistake, the defense stopped Ohio State cold and forced the Buckeyes to choose field goal attempts.
The only time that didn't happen was when Davis threw an interception that was returned to the Wolfpack three-yard line. The Buckeyes scored on the next play, something that sorely disappointed Amato.
"The only disappointing thing about the defense today was that it took them only one play to score," Amato said. "They just walked it in the end zone. Otherwise, the defense fought their fanny off."
Amato did make some minor adjustments on defense. He moved sophomore Stephen Tulloch into the starting lineup in place of senior Freddie Aughtry-Lindsay, and he started Marcus Hudson over Troy Graham at safety. Tulloch responded with 12 total tackles, three for losses. Aughtry-Lindsay had only three tackles, but on his first play in the game he dropped Ohio State back Lydell Ross for a five-yard loss. Aughtry-Lindsay also recovered a fumble late in the game that prevented Ohio State from kicking a sixth field goal and set up the Wolfpack's second touchdown.
"I tip my hat to the defense, because that is some of the best defense I have ever seen since I've been at N.C. State," McLendon said. "(Ohio State) really couldn't score. They did a great job up front. I can't say enough about the defense. They played their a-s-s-es off, pardon my French. I can't say enough about those guys."
There is no question the defense, with a pair of fast ends (Manny Lawson and Mario Williams) that every team in the league will fear and hard hitters such as linebackers Pat Thomas and Oliver Hoyte and safety Andre Maddox, is much-improved. Obviously, it will have to carry the Wolfpack until the offense can catch up.