November 8, 2006
RALEIGH - Every college football team wants to play meaningful games in November, and so N.C. State is getting its wish again.
It is becoming more and more apparent that the trip to rival North Carolina on Nov. 18, along with the season-ending home game against kind-of rival East Carolina on Nov. 25, will shake down as every bit as meaningful as that home-and-home series with Ohio State or any bowl game or any key showdown previously in coach Chuck Amato's seven seasons.
Why? Because after a 31-23 loss to Georgia Tech, the Pack was 3-6 overall and 2-4 in the ACC and riding a four-game losing streak.
State was still in position to squeak out a bowl trip by winning its last three, so if it finds a way to win at Clemson, then it would get the opportunity to salvage the season again and make it six bowl trips in seven years by beating UNC and ECU. But if State loses at Clemson, the losing streak will be at five and counting, and the games against UNC and ECU truly could decide Amato's future and the future of the program.
If State pulls out a bowl bid after what has gone on this season, with all the ups and downs and bizarre moments and freak plays, then Amato is absolutely safe and sure to brag about the resiliency of the program and its players. If State loses out, it would go out on a seven-game losing streak, would have lost to rival Carolina three years in a row, and Amato would be 2-4 lifetime against lame-duck John Bunting.
This is typical of how State has teetered on the edge at all times in the post-Philip Rivers era, but it might be the all-time all-timer. And while it was tempting to maintain that Amato was never truly on the proverbial coaching hot seat as much as some suggested going into this season, a 3-9 record actually would do the trick.
Most State fans were angry but willing to give Amato the benefit of the doubt for a 5-6 season in 2004, in the first year of the post-Rivers era, because it was so obvious that Marcus Stone wasn't ready to be Rivers' successor and Jay Davis was nothing more than a career backup thrust into too big a role. More fans wanted Amato's scalp when State fell to 2-4 in 2005, but he saved himself by winning five of his last six (including the Meineke Bowl) to finish 7-5.
This season has been an elevator ride. It has included a last-second non-conference loss at home to Akron, a blowout non-conference loss at Southern Mississippi, dramatic last-minute home wins over Boston College and Florida State when they were nationally ranked, and now this.
In all four losses that followed the win over FSU - to Wake Forest, at Maryland, at Virginia and to Georgia Tech - State has left potential wins on the table, let them slip away one way or another. State was not dominated or overwhelmed in any of the four, but the penalties, mistakes and various missed opportunities were overwhelming.
State has averaged 8.5 penalties per game in its six losses, for an average of 71.1 yards. In five of the six losses, State has been penalized nine or more times.
NOMINEES: MOST BIZARRE PENALTY
Unless the season turns back around at Clemson and then at Carolina and against ECU, the most bizarre penalties will wind up being the trademark of this season. Here are the nominees for most bizarre penalty, or most unacceptable penalty, through nine games.
Against Akron, State got a 15-yard penalty for excessive celebration when running back Andre Brown and others came off the bench after running back Jamelle Eugene's touchdown with 1:07 left put State ahead 17-14. The 15 yards proved vital when Akron drove 67 yards in the final minute and scored the game-winning touchdown on the last play of the game.
Against Southern Miss, defensive tackle Tank Tyler got a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and was ejected for allegedly spitting on a Southern Miss player. Tyler bounced back and has played very well since, but the penalty was symbolic of the lack of composure and smarts this team seems to play with much of the time.
Against Maryland, return ace Darrell Blackman took a punt 65 yards for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter that cut a 17-point deficit to 10, but he dove into the end zone and was called for a 15-yard penalty. Again, it was a needless, undisciplined penalty.
Against Virginia, it wasn't one particular penalty, it was seven of them on the offense, six on the line: three holds, three false starts. For the season, the offense has committed 71 percent of State's penalties.
Against Georgia Tech, two new and unexpected ones symbolized how it always seems to be something more bizarre.
Defensive end Willie Young made a big play to tackle Tashard Choice on a second-down play, then got an unsportsmanlike conduct 15-yarder for his post-tackle celebration. That gave Tech a first down instead of a third-and-long, and Reggie Ball hit Calvin Johnson for a 43-yard touchdown on the very next play.
Later, tight end Anthony Hill picked up a personal foul for going up to Tech's KaMichael Hall and pushing him in the chest, after Hill had been wide-open and dropped a pass. It was out in the open for all to see, and it turned a potential third-and-eight play into third-and-20.
These are the types of plays that continue to haunt this team and this program. State players continually talk about "silly" mistakes and shooting themselves in the foot and being undisciplined and not playing smart. Yet it continues from game to game, from season to season.
Ultimately, that could be the reason for Amato's demise, far more than anything else. It should be obvious to all that Amato's teams and his program are not fundamentally sound or smart, and that's directly attributable to coaching.
It would have been hard to imagine that Amato really would find his way onto the hot seat after the wins over BC and FSU. When reporters asked if he had escaped the hot seat after those wins, he sarcastically replied that he didn't know what a hot seat was.
The coach could find out in the coming weeks, and that's because he has gotten his wish. State will be playing truly meaningful games into late November. They're games that could determine the future of the program, along with that of the man currently in charge.