October 18, 2004 RALEIGH For all the cutesy, stupid things N.C. State did against North Carolina e.g., choosing not to run the ball more than it did after gaining more than 300 yards on the ground against a hapless UNC defense at least coach Chuck Amato and his team didn't spend the whole next week looking back.
They left that up to the NCSU fans, who just couldn't get over another controversial loss to the Tar Heels. The disputed play was reviewed, replayed and dissected various Triangle area newspapers and television stations printed blown-up photos or aired spotlight footage that would have made Abraham Zapruder proud but most objective observers agreed that there was simply no definitive answer.
It appeared that the late-game loss, in which T.A. McLendon's apparent touchdown was recorded on the Kenan Stadium scoreboard and then taken off, could have ended any hope that the Wolfpack had of making a fifth consecutive bowl game. That especially was the case with the prospect of going to recent nemesis Maryland just around the corner.
But as much as the UNC loss ate at Amato, he lost his cool while talking about it only once, when he was told that Carolina coach John Bunting had suggested that film showed McLendon's knee down "at the two-yard line." After pausing for a few seconds, Amato let off a little steam, mainly directed at Bunting.
"Which (replay) did he see?" Amato said. "What did he say? Number one, I don't think we're allowed to do that. I didn't know we're allowed to criticize officials. Theoretically, that's a criticism of the guy who had his hands in the air, isn't it? I mean, how can he get away with that? And if he saw his knees down on the two-yard-line, then he ought to complain because the ball wasn't spotted there."
After that, however, Amato wisely and nobly let the issue die, at least publicly, something he has had trouble doing in the past. He stopped talking about it, even though everyone could tell he wanted to say more. What the Wolfpack did instead was get ready for the Terps, who it turns out are as inept on offense as Carolina is on defense.
So when the Wolfpack traveled to Byrd Stadium, where two of the team's four straight fourth-quarter losses to the Terps had occurred, it could have spelled the end for any hopes of finishing in the top half of the new ACC standings. After all, the hard part of the Pack's schedule begins with its seventh game, when Miami comes to Raleigh.
The defense obviously was ready to make sure that it wouldn't have to rely on the offense to get the ball into the end zone late in the game to assure a victory. The defense that once was ranked No. 1 in the nation wanted to reclaim that spot, and it did, allowing Maryland only 91 yards of total offense.
After allowing 51 yards on the Terps' first drive which came up empty when All-ACC kicker Nick Novak missed a field goal attempt made five yards longer by a penalty the Wolfpack completely stuffed Maryland's offense, which the week before had gained only 81 yards against Georgia Tech.
The Terps gained only one first down in its next 13 possessions, going two-for-17 on third-down conversions. At one point, the Terps had seven consecutive three-and-out possessions, a string that ended when it chose to go for it on fourth down. They didn't make it, turning it into a four-and-out possession.
Maryland probably wouldn't have scored at all if Amato hadn't sent cornerback Dovonte Edwards out in the fourth quarter to return a punt. Edwards, a former receiver making his first return attempt of the season, muffed the catch and the Terps got their only short field of the game, giving Pack fans a short spell of heart palpitations. Novak kicked a field goal to prevent a Maryland shut out.
But the N.C. State defense wouldn't let there be a fourth-quarter collapse this time, and there was no chance of letting this win slip away.
"We are sitting here 4-2," Amato said, "and we have one loss in the Atlantic Coast Conference."
Really, isn't that where most Wolfpack fans expected their team to be at this point in the season? The only switch was losing at North Carolina instead of losing at Maryland. The former was hard to swallow, but given the recent happenings in the series with the latter, the win in College Park took some of the sting off the loss in Chapel Hill.
"It could lead to big-time success for us," junior halfback Tramain Hall said.
Offense Slowly Gaining Confidence
The pure statistics suggested that the Wolfpack faltered a bit against Maryland offensively, gaining only 303 yards after a huge output the week before against UNC.
But with hard-nosed starting center Jed Paulsen out of the Maryland game with an ankle injury, then the losses of tailback T.A. McLendon, who tweaked his sore hamstring on his only carry of the day, and sixth-year tackle Chris Colmer, who suffered a bruised shoulder in the game, the Wolfpack offense provided what the team needed to get the win.
Junior quarterback Jay Davis, who has settled into the job as the replacement for Philip Rivers, wasn't particularly efficient against the Terps, but he got the ball into the hands of the right people to make plays. His 30-yard pass to tailback Darrell Blackman, on which Blackman made a spectacular one-handed catch in full stride down the sideline, was perhaps the biggest offensive play of the game.
Now Davis and the Wolfpack have four of their last five games at home or on a neutral field (Charlotte's Bank of America Stadium), which should further boost their confidence during the second half of the season.
Basketball: Another Quiet Opener
It was another low-key beginning to the season for Herb Sendek's basketball team, but that might not be a bad idea this year.
Sendek never has done a Midnight Madness event or any other kind of glitzy kickoff to the season. He generally settles for some kind of festivities at the Red-White game, which this year will be included in a weekend full of activities. It will precede the State-Miami football game on Oct. 23, and everything will occur during the final weekend of the North Carolina State Fair, which is held in Raleigh.
Just like last year, the Wolfpack hopes to sneak up on the rest of the league, which expects to have at least six teams in the preseason Top 25. The Wolfpack, however, isn't one of the four teams generally Wake Forest, Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Duke that are likely to be ranked in the preseason top 10. This despite the Pack returning Julius Hodge, last season's ACC player of the year, and Sendek, last season's ACC coach of the year.
"The team that nobody is talking about, and the one that I think is going to be really good, is N.C. State," one ACC head coach said this summer. "I think Herb has done a great job there, and he doesn't get any credit for it. Everybody better watch out of them, because I think they are going to be very good."
Hodge looks much different than he has in his previous three years, after adding some 15 pounds of muscle to his frame. That should help him withstand another full season of contact in the ACC, and perhaps it will make him better prepared to do well in postseason play. That's where injuries and bad luck have caused the Wolfpack to falter in recent years, after putting together three straight winning records in ACC competition.