N.C. State (7-5) vs. Kansas (6-6)
Dec. 22, 5:30 p.m., ESPN
With 2003 Disappointment Following 2002 Surprise, Amato Has Much To Prove In Post-Expansion ACC December 15, 2003 RALEIGH Heading into the 2003 season, there was a lively debate among N.C. State fans about what would constitute a disappointing year. Hopes were exceedingly high in August, coming off last year's school-best 11-3 record and back-to-back wins over Florida State and Notre Dame, the holders of college football's most recent and most storied dynasties. So fans were wondering if
10-2 really would cut it for Chuck Amato's fourth installment as the head coach at his alma mater.
In hindsight, of course, such talk seems almost silly. The Wolfpack ended up 7-5, tied for fourth in the ACC again, and headed off to play 6-6 Kansas in the Tangerine Bowl. That was only slightly better than being an unsigned free agent in the league's bowl draft, and it was a far cry from what most observers expected in the senior season of record-setting, living-legend quarterback Philip Rivers.
This definitely proved to be a season of missed opportunities for the Wolfpack, which still had a chance with two weeks remaining in the season to vie for a Bowl Championship Series bid and its first share of a ACC championship since 1979. But blown chances in the final two games a double-overtime loss at Florida State and a still-hard-to-believe collapse against Maryland in the home finale left the Pack with a .500 conference record for the third time in Amato's four-year tenure.
With other losses at Ohio State, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech, the Wolfpack practically wasted the senior season of the best quarterback and one of the most prominent athletes in school history. Rivers deserved a better ending to his amazing career, but a defense that was prone to giving up big plays and frittering away two-touchdown leads let down the ACC player of the year and everyone else in the N.C. State camp.
So, as the Wolfpack prepared to play in the Tangerine Bowl for the second time in three years, Amato was spending as much time trying to teach his defense to tackle as he was preparing for the Jayhawks. That marked one of the advantages coaches always celebrate when they go to a postseason game: the 21 days of practice they are allowed.
It's like spring practice, Amato said, without the restrictions.
Before N.C. State plays again next fall, numerous questions must be addressed. No team in the ACC has a bigger challenge in replacing a single player than the Wolfpack has in replacing Rivers. He was an unmatched leader, among many other great things.
Despite his oft-stated intentions to do otherwise, Amato played reserve quarterback Jay Davis in only three games this fall. Sure, Davis completed nearly 90 percent of his passes, but he had only nine attempts. That's not much of a sample, either for a young player to gain confidence or for his teammates and coaches to grow comfortable with him.
Davis has been waiting for three years to get some action, but he still will have to beat out talented redshirt freshman Marcus Stone to earn the starting job. Since he hasn't played in critical situations yet, Davis will enter spring practice as an unproven commodity. He has to show he has the talent and the confidence to lead a team that likely will be more balanced next year but still will want to throw a lot.
Stone looks much more imposing on the field, and Amato commented several times during the season about how the burly freshman was Rivers' constant shadow from August through November. Stone obviously was trying to absorb as much from the ACC's passing and total offense career leader as possible during their one season on the same team.
Only slightly less important for the Wolfpack offense than finding a new quarterback will be finding reliable depth at tailback. T.A. McLendon, with his multiple injuries and frequent miscues on the field, simply couldn't be counted on to be the team's primary ball-carrier this fall, and Amato essentially gave up trying to put senior Cotra Jackson and junior Josh Brown into the game. The staff eventually decided to bring in true freshman Reggie Davis, who had hoped to redshirt, but Davis played in just four games and didn't come close to gaining even 100 yards for the season.
One huge but rarely mentioned factor that hurt the Wolfpack running back corps in 2003 was Amato's pursuit of two academically questionable players on the recruiting trail last year. Darrell Blackman and Brian Dennison signed with the Pack in February but did not meet NCAA academic requirements. Blackman, a speedy high school All-American who spent the fall semester in prep school, still hopes to enroll at NCSU in January and join the rotation in 2004.
Amato should have two solid building blocks with the offensive line and the receiving corps, especially now that tackle Chris Colmer has been granted a sixth year of eligibility. Assuming he returns from his unusual shoulder injury, the Wolfpack will have five returning starters on the line, plus exciting tight end T.J. Williams. The receiving corps loses Jerricho Cotchery, who could become the program's leader in career receptions in the Tangerine Bowl, but Tramain Hall, Richard Washington, Brian Clark and Chris Hawkins will fill in capably. The Pack also should get one-time starter Sterling Hicks back from his knee injury, though he may not be at 100 percent at the beginning of the season.
Defensively, the Wolfpack will have 11 starters back, including 2002 cornerback Marcus Hudson, who was suspended this season. The only starter lost was tackle Alan Halloway, who will be replaced by either Chip Cross or Tank Tyler. With first-team All-ACC safety Andre Maddox, linebackers Pat Thomas, Freddie Aughtry-Lindsay, Oliver Hoyte, Manny Lawson and Stephen Tulloch, and end Mario Williams returning, the Wolfpack isn't lacking in talent.
What Amato needs and he talked about it on multiple occasions this fall is a leader to step forward. Thomas and Maddox were perfectly capable of making big plays, but they never really became leaders. That will have to change if the Pack's defense hopes to be better than the squad that gave up 417.5 yards a game this season.
This was an important campaign for Amato's program, one that was supposed to end up even better than last year's appearance in the Gator Bowl. But several issues prevented that from happening, including the injuries to McLendon and Colmer and a total revamping of the defensive line.
Now the Wolfpack faces the prospect of playing without Rivers in the more challenging, post-expansion ACC. Next year N.C. State will face Miami, Virginia Tech, Florida State and Ohio State in what is likely to be the most demanding schedule in school history. So far, Amato hasn't excelled against competition far less in stature. To expect the Pack to do so in 2004 may be setting the school's ever-demanding fan base up for another disappointment.