By Dave Glenn and staff, ACC Sports Journal
November 11, 2002 RALEIGH After all the self-congratulatory back-slapping the Wolfpack did following its nationally televised 38-6 victory over Clemson a few weeks ago when head coach Chuck Amato called fraud on several members of the national media, who had hinted (correctly, it turns out) that his team was a national championship wannabe a quick descent seemed almost inevitable. The surprise, however, was that Amato and his team stumbled first against Georgia Tech, an unranked team led by once-struggling quarterback A.J. Suggs and previously unused tailback Gordon Clinkscale. The second defeat, to a hard-nosed Maryland team that just barely edged the Pack at its own game (efficient offense, hard-hitting defense, strong special teams), was easier to understand.
Both games, as Amato correctly pointed out, were down-to-the-wire affairs, and the Wolfpack easily could have won either. But it didn't happen. So in the last two seasons, all six of the team's regular-season losses were games the Pack could have and, in some cases, should have won.
What, exactly, did that say as the Wolfpack headed into its final two regular-season contests, against Virginia and Florida State?
Well, Amato's program is close to being a national power, but it's not there yet. He needs a few more dependable receivers for Philip Rivers, a few more reliable offensive linemen. He needs more people on his defensive front especially experienced linebackers who can contain break-out tailbacks and quarterbacks.
And, as mentioned in the last issue of the Sports Journal, he needs a reliable kicker. Adam Kiker, finally back after missing the season's first two months with an undefined back injury, missed a chip-shot 26-yarder that would have given the Wolfpack a 10-point lead over Maryland in the fourth quarter. Instead, the Terps later were able to use a 28-yarder from Nick Novak as the game-winner.
We missed ours and they made theirs, Amato said, and that is the difference in the game.
Of even more concern following the second consecutive loss were the significant injuries suffered by offensive lineman Shane Riggs, tailback T.A. McLendon and wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery.
Cotchery, Rivers' favorite and most reliable receiver, probably won't play again until the bowl game, a significant blow to an offense that got little from its running game in the two losses. Rivers still throws the ball on occasion to senior Bryan Peterson and sophomore Sterling Hicks, but other targets (Dovonte Edwards, Chris Murray, Andy Bertrand) have been next-to-invisible this year.
McLendon was stopped cold against Georgia Tech, which thwarted the Pack's running game, then forced Rivers to make bad decisions.
Against Maryland, McLendon again was a non-factor, after injuring his shoulder while dropping a swing pass from Rivers. The freshman tailback is awfully talented and gives the Wolfpack a better running attack than it had in Amato's first two seasons, but he does tend to get hurt an awful lot. Sophomore Josh Brown's speed and squirt-through-the-hole abilities make him a nice change-up for McLendon, but he's not particularly effective as a primary back.
Meanwhile, Rivers had a near-perfect first half, but two poorly thrown passes were intercepted in the second half, as he tried to force the ball to receivers.
Finally, the Wolfpack paid for its overconfidence on special teams, especially in the loss to the Yellow Jackets. It failed to contain Kelley Rhino, one of the ACC's most dangerous punt returners, on a 26-yard return that set up Tech's game-winning touchdown. The Pack did a better job against Maryland's Steve Suter, who tied a national record with four punt returns for scores this season better on special teams, anyway.
The Wolfpack's defense let Suter get away on a 64-yard end-around for a touchdown and a 36-yard reception behind cornerback Lamont Reid late in the game that set up the game-winning touchdown. Apparently, the corners and defensive ends didn't realize Suter could hurt them in other ways.
The final two games are important for Amato, who finished 4-4 in the ACC in each of his first two seasons at N.C. State. Losses at Virginia a possibility, with Cotchery out of the lineup and in the season finale to Florida State would represent an enormous disappointment. A 9-4 record essentially would mean that, despite the impressive school-record (nine straight wins) start, the Wolfpack really hasn't improved much in Amato's third season.
Even a 10-3 finish, on the other hand, would mark the first 10-win season in school history, a likely Gator/Peach Bowl bid and another positive step in the coach's impressive building project in Raleigh.