NC State (0-1) at Connecticut (1-0)
NC State finished last season on such a positive note and returned so many of its core pieces that it entered this season with some dark horse Atlantic Division potential. Going into the opener, from their head coach Tom O’Brien and on down the roster, they all knew a chance to beat an SEC team on national television was a big deal, and they didn’t shy away from admitting that.
But a lot of veteran players on NC State’s roster picked the wrong night to have bad games, and that’s how the Wolfpack is looking at it. They’re still optimistic that this can be a special team, and they have 11 more opportunities to prove it. For now, though, they just want to get their first win of the year at Connecticut (1-0) on Saturday so that they can stop hearing about slow starts.
“We got off to a slow start (last year) and that’s one thing we’re not trying to get to this year,” senior wide receiver Tobais Palmer said. “We’re going to have a little bit more urgency to get to what we want to be and how successful we want to be this season. … We’re looking forward to going into Connecticut with a better head than we did last week.”
Quarterback Mike Glennon completed 27-of-46 passes for 288 yards but threw four interceptions. The offensive line did its job for the most part (he was only sacked once), but his pass-catchers let him down. NC State had three official drops (two by running backs), but it seemed like more. But he threw just 12 interceptions all of last season and he will develop a better rhythm with his receivers as the season goes on.
The NC State defense will have a chance to show last week was an aberration, too. While preseason All-America cornerback David Amerson was noticeably burned on a few occasions, the NC State defensive line never was able to pressure Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray, who passed for 333 yards and was barely touched. The rush defense gave up 191 yards, but 109 of those came on two runs. On Tennessee’s other 36 attempts, they gained 82 yards. That was no consolation for senior defensive end Darryl Cato-Bishop.
“We didn’t do a good job of stopping the run. We let up one big play and that gave them most of their yards on the run. In the future, we’re going to have to do a way better job of stopping the run,” Cato-Bishop said. “We’ve got to shoot gaps and apply pressure, come faster off the ball and be a penetrating defensive line.”
Big plays haunted the Wolfpack defense all game as it allowed five plays of 20 or more yards (three of which went for touchdowns). Most of that damage was done in the first quarter, but in the second half when NC State was trying to make a comeback, it couldn’t get off the field. Tennessee converted 6-of-10 third downs in the second half and had four plays of ten or more yards on third down alone.
“We try to get three-and-outs, but when we’re not good on third down, that means the defense isn’t playing well,” Cato-Bishop said. “In that stretch of the game, we were on the field for a long time so the defense was pretty tired. We’ve got to do a better job of getting off the field on third down.”
Tennessee’s offense had a lot more talent at the skill positions than Connecticut. Even against Massachusetts (an FCS team), Connecticut managed just two plays of 20 or more yards. Running back Lyle McCombs was a bright spot offensively last season, running for nearly 96 yards a game as a freshman. He ran for a workmanlike 82 yards on 23 carries last week, but his long run was 12 yards.
The Huskies have an experienced defense, and it showed against Massachusetts as they allowed just 59 total yards (three rushing) and three first downs. Massachusetts never crossed the 50-yard line. The Wolfpack may not get a ton of explosive plays offensively, but they have to be patient and take care of the football.
Turnovers killed NC State last week, and that can’t happen again. O’Brien said that ten plays – five big ones allowed on defense and five turnovers by the offense – were the difference last week. “You can’t take ten plays out of the game, but those ten plays dictated the final,” O’Brien said. “We have to make corrections in those areas to give ourselves a chance to win on Saturday.”
It seemed like the Wolfpack was pressing at times last week, thinking too much instead of going on instinct. They seemed tentative and unsure. Palmer admitted there were some nerves, but attributed them to first-game jitters. “We’ve just got to go in there with the mentality that they’re not going to be able to stop us. We’ve just got to be confident in what we do and how we do it,” Palmer said. “We mess up, then we mess up full speed and come back and we adjust and do what we have to do to be successful the next time.”
Random mascot facts: UConn has had a live Husky mascot since 1934, but in 1970, the Student Senate voted to sell Jonathan VII because the dog “represented the establishment”. Oh, those crazy hippie kids. A student petition prevented that from happening.
Prediction: NC State, 27-12. NC State is 8-17 in road games since 2007 and 4-13 in out-of-state contests (1-1 in non-conference games out of state), but three of those out-of-state wins have come in the last two seasons (at Virginia, at Central Florida and at Georgia Tech). NC State has won its first road game of the year just once in the last five seasons. But having played in what was essentially a road game last week, they’ll be ready.
Duke (1-0) at Stanford (1-0)
On the second play of Duke’s season-opener against Florida International, FIU running back Kedrick Rhodes took a dump-off pass 67 yards for a touchdown. Wallace Wade Stadium fell silent, and that thought of Same old Duke seemed to hang in the humid night air over the stadium.
Maybe it was just the residual smoky haze left over from the pregame fireworks set off when Duke ran onto the field. Or maybe it was just the ghosts of those silly mistakes that Duke had made in the past, leading to momentum shifting irreversibly to their opponent. Those ghosts were whispering to Duke players and fans, Here we go again.
“I have felt often in ball games since we’ve been here, we’ve had lulls that have just critically hurt us. Everybody watching would say, ‘Gosh, you really played well, and then…’” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. He didn’t even have to finish the sentence. Same old Duke.
But this Duke team decided somewhere between November of last year and one of their many grueling summer workouts that this team was going to be different. The crowd rallied behind any sliver of hope the team gave them that they could flip the script, and once Duke got rolling offensively and started forcing turnovers, there was no stopping them. A blocked field goal returned for a touchdown just before halftime capped off a 30-point second quarter.
“If you continue to do that, and you play with that edge for 60 minutes, then you’ll be ready to block a field goal. You’re going to be ready at the right time to strip a ball,” Cutcliffe said. “That’s what happens when you’re trying to win the game every play. That’s what we haven’t done well enough (in the past), and obviously that’s my responsibility.”
As Duke learns to sustain effort and excellence from game to game, the next step is establishing consistency in a season. The Blue Devils are 11-14 in their first six games of each season under Cutcliffe (including 1-0 this year). But in the last six games of each season, Duke is 5-19 and 1-15 in the final four games.
It shows how much injuries and attrition can take their toll on an already-thin roster. While this roster isn’t all that different, although it is more talented and it’s certainly more mature. Playing a 10:30 game against a ranked Stanford team that is going to be eager to prove itself after squeaking by San Jose State last Friday will be a difficult task.
The Blue Devils will need every bit of the confidence they gained last week as they head to Palo Alto to face No. 21 Stanford on Saturday night. Considering their recent history, Cutcliffe couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow when asked if his team would be complacent after the big win in the opener. “If anybody gets complacent here,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said with a wry smile, “they’re going to fail in life.”
Stanford has experience and talent on both lines of scrimmage, and Duke is very thin defensively, particularly in the secondary. But Duke has personnel on both sides of the ball that have shown they can make plays to change games, and that’s what Cutcliffe has been building towards all along.
Those kinds of players – and plays – are the difference when supposed Cinderella’s knock off the heavy favorite. And Stanford would certainly qualify. And back-to-back wins over bowl teams from last season would definitely be the type of success that Duke can build on.
“We’ve had some nice wins here and we’ve played some good games. I think what this team is going to have to do, their challenge is, let’s go back-to-back. If you remember, we had three ACC wins in a row. That ’09 team, when it was healthy … we were a good football team,” Cutcliffe said, “but we couldn’t sustain it through injury.”
“We can sustain this, but will we sustain it? That’s your challenge. We can sustain it. That’s the difference. Let’s go do it.”
Random mascot facts: Stanford was known as The Indians until 1972 (it was abolished for the PC reasons). Stanford called itself “The Cardinal”, but there was a growing movement to give the school a mascot. In 1975, the band used their halftime shows to somewhat sarcastically suggest mascot names that included “the Steaming Manhole, the French Fry, and the Tree.” The Tree caught on and each year, whoever wins the job makes his (or her) own costume. (There could – and perhaps should – be a separate blog post about all the ridiculous things the Tree has done over the years.)
Prediction: Stanford, 33-24. Duke is the more confident team right now after dominating FIU 46-26 last week, and Stanford should be a bit shakier considering its narrow win over San Jose State (20-17). Of course, that also ensures the Cardinal won’t take Duke for granted. While Duke is on the cusp of being able to win a game like this, I’m not sure that they’re there quite yet. If they avoid some of the mistakes that have killed them in the past in games like this, they will be there at the end. And regardless, they should make Stanford work for a win.
North Carolina (1-0) at Wake Forest (1-0)
Larry Fedora lives and breathes football, and doesn’t seem to care about anything extraneous. He doesn’t always know how to pronounce names. He’s not too into PR: he readily admitted he had no idea where Elon was last week. His North Carolina team is ineligible for postseason play this year, but there’s still a chance the ACC would allow them claim a Coastal Division crown (should they win it). He could still sweep their next four in-state opponents, starting this week at Wake Forest.
Somehow, Fedora and the Tar Heels have managed to block out all the distractions that have swirled incessantly around the team since late 2009. It’s likely at least in part due to Fedora’s simple approach: control what you can control. This week, he was asked what he thinks about the new kickoff rule where all touchbacks go out to the 25-yard line.
“Uh…I don’t know,” Fedora said. “I guess it’s all right. I don’t put a lot of thought into whether I like something or not. This is what the rule is, so here we go. My mind automatically starts, okay, how am I going to take advantage of the rule is now?” He’s not a big fan of the helmet rule either, but he quickly added, “It really doesn’t matter if I like it.”
The rules are the rules, both from the NCAA to Fedora and from Fedora to his team. It’s not a democracy. As coaches say far too often, it is what it is. North Carolina can’t play in the ACC title game, the stated goal of every team in the league entering the season. They can’t go to a bowl.
But they can run a fast-paced offense (the Tar Heels ran 63 plays through the first three quarters last Saturday). And it can run even faster. Quarterback Bryn Renner blamed himself for that. “I watched Oregon play (Saturday) night after the game and I was embarrassed because we weren’t going as fast as them,” Renner said (the Ducks ran 96 plays).
“I got caught looking a couple of times and that got exploited on film from Coach Fedora and (offensive coordinator Blake) Anderson, so I got an earful and I won’t let that happen again. I kind of let the team down in that regard of not pushing the tempo. It’s like fast-break offense. We’ve got to get up and call the next play and that starts with me.
“I can’t be a spectator – I might as well just buy a ticket.”
Hard to blame him for marveling at tailback Giovani Bernard, who racked up 203 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns on just 13 touches. He returned punts for the first time in his career, something that has made North Carolina fans nervous about a potential injury.
Bernard was nervous on his first return, so he made a fair catch. On the second, he took it 30 yards and was starting to feel comfortable. His third attempt came in the second quarter. As he got ready to take the field, Fedora – who is in charge of the punt return unit – approached him on the sideline. “(Fedora) was like, ‘You know what? You could take this back if you want,’ jokingly,” Bernard said. “And I was like, ‘You know what? Watch this.’”
Bernard and his teammates are oozing confidence right now. Sure, they have nothing to lose. But they have plenty to gain. He can win individual accolades, which he would assuredly welcome. But they want to prove themselves as a unit. They understand that some of their numbers against Elon were dismissed because of the opponent, and they want to show the offense works against anyone.
“We just want to show everybody that we can play with the top dogs and not just Elon, not just smaller schools. We want to show everybody that we can do it against big schools,” Bernard said. “We’ve still got things that we want to fix up. But we’re going into every game and we’re hungry. We really just want to show everybody that we are that top-notch type of team.”
With a 1-0 start with 11 to go (and four more in-state opponents), they’re ready for Round 2 at Wake Forest. “That’s one of the goals of this football team is to do (win a state championship),” Fedora said. “This is the second one. It’s very, very important and our guys understand the importance of it.”
Wake Forest head coach Jim Grobe is 30-8 against in-state teams (20-0 against all in-state foes except North Carolina and NC State). But Grobe is 4-3 against the Tar Heels and has lost two straight. Still, with Grobe getting improbable wins over more talented teams every year, this won’t be an easy game for the Tar Heels.
Wake squeaked by Liberty with a 20-17 win, and Grobe will have his team’s full attention. But Fedora showed in Week 1’s crisp performance that he has his team’s attention, too.
“It’s the next game. It’s the next opportunity. That’s the culture that we’re trying to establish. It doesn’t matter who you play or when you play them, where you play them, what time you play them, it’s the next opportunity,” Fedora said.
Random mascot facts: Since we profiled the Demon Deacon last week, it’s time for Rameses. UNC has kept a live ram since 1924, and as happens with live mascots, this one has been kidnapped a time or two. The most famous incident was in the 1970s when East Carolina students took him prior to a UNC Homecoming game. He lived in a frat house for a week and was released at the game painted purple and gold.
Prediction: North Carolina, 37-19. The Tar Heels weren’t just impressive last week because they scored 62 points, or even because they didn’t allow any. Their execution was crisp on offense, defense and special teams and they committed just three penalties. Particularly considering they spent the off-season installing new schemes, that’s remarkable. Wake will play better than it did against Liberty. North Carolina will have to make sure they shut down Wake Forest wideout Michael Campanaro and make quarterback Tanner Price uncomfortable. But the Deacons’ offensive line looked shaky at best, and their defense will have to win the day. If the Tar Heels execute as well as they did last week, they should pass their first road test.
Even though cornerbacks are supposed to be able to forget bad plays, junior Ross Cockrell still remembers them. And he remembers when Duke opened the 2011 season against Richmond, taking the field for the game full of fire in their black jerseys, which were a surprise from head coach David Cutcliffe before the game.
About three hours and countless head-scratching mistakes later, Duke found themselves 0-1, having suffered an embarrassing loss to an FCS team yet again. “I think this year, we’re finally turning the curve and expecting to win,” Cockrell said. “Last year, I think we might have hoped to win more, but now we expect to win. I think now, the plays that didn’t go for us last year will start to go for us this year and we’ll see what happens.”
Cockrell is part of a Duke secondary that has been hit by a rash of injuries, particularly at safety. Taylor Sowell ruptured his Achilles and is out for the year, while projected starter Jordan Byas is out indefinitely after recent knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus. Walt Canty is the only experienced safety starting, and his backup, Anthony Young-Wiseman, is questionable with a leg injury. Three of the six healthy safeties on Duke’s depth chart are true freshmen, and they will almost certainly have to play on Saturday.
“What we have to watch with freshmen is cramping after pregame warmups, and that’s the truth. You expend way too energy as a young player, the anxiety, the pressure,” Cutcliffe said. “They’re going to be coming into that tunnel after pregame warmup, they’re going to be soaking wet. You’ve got to remind them to drink, take deep breaths.
“They’re pretty natural football players. I always remind them, it’s the same measurements on that field. Everything is the same that you’ve done all your life. Just forget it all when you get into the game. Then when somebody hits them really hard, all that nervousness is gone.”
In total, Duke will be down 11 scholarship players and that number could grow to 13 against a good Florida International team coming off of an eight-win season.
But this particular Duke team is prepared to face whatever lies ahead of them. When sophomore wide receiver Blair Holliday got in a watercraft accident on July 4 and suffered a serious head injury, his prognosis looked bleak at first. He has continued to improve steadily, and Duke will wear a No. 8 sticker on the back of their helmets this season.
Cutcliffe updates Holliday’s condition as often as he can, and on Wednesday, he went to see Holliday for the first time since he was moved to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta. The Duke head coach saw Holliday’s mom and brother first. While he was speaking to them, he saw a tall and lanky person walking down the hallway towards him.
“He walked up and I was able to give him a big hug. It was the first time I’ve been able to hug him. You couldn’t hug him before. (He’s) free of monitors, free of wires,” Cutcliffe said. “It was pretty neat. I liked feeling small around him. He’s a big man in lots of ways.”
Holliday’s injury understandably shook his teammates. They have been inspired by his fight to recover. But even before his injury, that was a close-knit group. Since, it’s become something entirely different. They’re not just teammates and friends. There’s a deep bond that comes with shared experience.
“If a team that was out there that could handle this kind of adversity, it’s this team. And it’s a tribute to the older guys on the team, the quality of the character, the investment they’ve put into each other, the investment they’ve put into this program,” Cutcliffe said. “I don’t know if people really understand the mentality here. I think it’s carried us to even another new place that we maybe needed to go, or found out we could go. There’s a closeness when you walk in our team room.”
Season Prediction: 5-7 (2-6). The final six games of the season will make or break bowl eligibility for Duke. If the Blue Devils get to that stretch of hosting Carolina, Clemson and Miami and traveling to Virginia Tech, Florida State and Georgia Tech with at least four wins, they’ll have a chance. But it’s hard to find even two more wins in that slate. It’s just the bad luck of the draw in ACC scheduling, but it may be what holds Duke back from reaching its first bowl game since 1995.
Junior quarterback Bryn Renner has been known to ride the proverbial emotional rollercoaster with the best of them. When he threw one of his 13 interceptions, his anger at himself was visible minutes later as he paced the sideline. But when he completed a long pass for a touchdown, his jubilation would be just as obvious as he fist-pumped and jumped into the waiting arms of his teammates with a big grin on his face.
His statistics often reflected his mercurial nature. In a home win over Wake Forest, Renner completed 21-of-28 passes for 338 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. The very next weekend at NC State, he completed just 9-of-17 passes for 76 yards and two interceptions.
Those two defenses were very different, but when Renner was brimming with confidence, he was difficult to stop. The NC State game was one of the first times that the pain Renner was feeling in his ankle showed on his face, and ended up leaving the game with a concussion.
And in the spring, coming off of surgery to remove bone spurs in his ankle, he tried too hard to impress new head coach Larry Fedora. “Until the spring game, I practiced like crap to be honest. I was terrible during the spring. As far as health-wise, trying to get the playbook down, it was a transition for me. But until the spring game, I practiced like crap and (the coaches) were probably saying the same thing.
“You get a new boss, so you want to go out there – if you had a regular job, you’re always going to want to impress the boss and make sure he knows you’re the right guy for the job. I put a little to much pressure on myself and I just didn’t come in and play my game.”
Renner has always been known as a gunslinger. But he also knows that in order for this team to be successful, he has to take better care of the ball. He completed 42 of his first 49 pass attempts last season, but four of those incompletions were interceptions. In Carolina’s seven wins, Renner threw 16 touchdowns to five interceptions. In six losses, he threw ten touchdowns and eight picks.
At times, it was like he wanted to push the limits of his own talent, trusting it sometimes even above his own better judgment. Now, he knows better. “I’ve got to be a game manager and protect the football first and foremost. If I do that, I think we’ve got enough skill players and enough talent around me to be a good football team,” Renner said.
“Obviously, the offense is only going to go as far as (Renner will) take us, or as far as he’s willing to take us. I know this…that guy’s got a lot of fire in him,” Fedora said. “He’s got a lot of want-to. So we’re going to be fine.”
Sophomore tailback Giovani Bernard will help that Carolina offense run smoothly, as will a very experienced offensive line (anchored by a preseason All-America selection at right guard, Jonathan Cooper). How good the wide receivers will be remains a mystery, but Carolina will have plenty of pass-catchers with a solid group of tight ends and backs. Fedora will implement his spread offense, but some pro-style elements likely will remain.
The Carolina defense, though, could struggle. Dan Disch and Vic Koenning are co-defensive coordinators, and the duo have implemented a 4-2-5 defense. The Tar Heels have two elite defenders in nose tackle Sylvester Williams and linebacker Kevin Reddick, and there are solid starters in both of those units.
While the secondary has experience returning, that’s not necessarily a good thing; Carolina’s pass defense was atrocious last season. The Tar Heels can only hope that Tre Boston’s move back to safety benefits the talented junior. Jabari Price and Tim Scott both started last season and showed flashes.
Elon likely won’t test Carolina’s secondary much, but a Week 2 trip to Wake Forest certainly will. The Elon game will gave everyone an indication of how far the Tar Heels have come on both sides of the ball in learning the new schemes.
Season Prediction: 8-4 (5-3). Carolina’s schedule is easy enough; a road game at Louisville will be tough, and Virginia Tech at home seems like a loss. It’s tough to know what exactly to expect with this team. Everything will be new. Still, Fedora’s enthusiasm combined with the talent remaining on this team (particularly offensively) should be enough for Carolina’s third 8-4 regular-season finish in the last four seasons. The Tar Heels seem like the type of team that might beat a team that is better than they are on paper (like an NC State) and lose to a team they should arguably beat (like Duke). But considering Carolina’s penchant for 8-4 finishes (and its relatively easy ACC schedule) 8-4 seems reasonable.
NC State is not heading to Atlanta carrying the ACC banner when they face Tennessee in the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff game on Friday night at 7:30. “We’re going to play this for ourselves first, for this football team. We’re going to play it for our university, our student body and our faculty and our fans,” NC State head coach Tom O’Brien said. “The ACC falls in line after that.”
The ACC has lost early high-profile non-conference games in recent years that have made the league irrelevant later in the season without a national title contender. The ACC could really use a win over an SEC team. But O’Brien’s Wolfpack needs the early-season momentum even more.
Since 2007 (his first year at NC State), the Wolfpack has won their first game against an FBS opponent just once. That came in 2010 at Central Florida. And 2010 ended up being the Wolfpack’s best season under O’Brien (9-4). NC State has started the season with a winning record in its first five games just twice in the O’Brien era. Not coincidentally, the Wolfpack’s best start (4-1) also came in 2010. Last year, they started 2-3 (0-3 against FBS foes) but rallied with six wins in their final eight games.
Two of NC State’s five season-openers under O’Brien were against South Carolina, and NC State lost both. South Carolina was on the rise, and Tennessee was just 5-7 last season. But the Volunteers are rebuilding under third-year coach Derek Dooley. And Tennessee is still, as O’Brien put it, a brand-name program.
“It’s the third time in six years that we’ve opened with an SEC team, so it’s not like we haven’t been there before,” O’Brien said. “I think it’ll give us a great measuring stick of where we are and where we’re headed. It’ll be a big challenge but I think our kids are looking forward to the challenge.”
O’Brien knows better than anyone that the start of the season doesn’t determine how it ends. But he also knows that this team is special, and that an opportunity to beat an SEC team on national television shouldn’t be taken lightly. “It’s a great opportunity for us. We’re looking at it that way,” O’Brien said. “It’s a chance to do something special with our program and we’re looking at it in that light.”
And this team is more than capable of taking advantage of a big win to start the year. NC State’s 2012 squad is loaded with talented experience, something that’s been hard to come by in recent years, particularly defensively. State’s defensive line rotation is loaded with juniors and seniors, and the linebackers don’t have a lot of depth but are led by veteran Sterling Lucas.
But it’s the secondary that is NC State’s best unit, featuring arguably the nation’s best cornerback in David Amerson, who led the nation with 13 interceptions a year ago. A lot of the Wolfpack’s starters had to play earlier in their careers than they anticipated because of injuries, and that experience is paying off now.
The Wolfpack will also have its best offensive line under O’Brien, and quarterback Mike Glennon is coming off of a stellar end to 2011. “I think just the fact that I had been through so many experiences – in the beginning part of the season I hadn’t gone through particular situations, and then by the end of the season I had pretty much seen everything I could see,” Glennon said of his late-season surge. “The speed of the game continued to slow down and my managing of the game really started to improve.”
The only question marks are at running back, wide receiver and tight end. And O’Brien hopes to fill those roles by committee. At tight end, it was assumed junior Asa Watson would start, but he’s listed as third on the depth chart behind senior Mario Carter and junior Anthony Talbert. O’Brien says all of them will get work.
At wide receiver, Tobais Palmer is the only known commodity returning with Bryan Underwood out indefinitely. Junior Quintin Payton will start at the other wide receiver spot, and some freshmen will figure in to the mix as well. Sophomore running back Tony Creecy ended 2011 on a hot streak and after a strong spring and fall, he was named the starter. But sophomore Mustafa Greene and senior James Washington will also carry the load.
“There’s three guys, I’m not sure how they’re all going to play but they all will be in the game probably in the first half sometime on Friday night,” O’Brien said. “I think it’s a thing that as we play and go on, it will shake itself out. How it’s going to end up, it might be different certainly midyear than it is starting the year off. But those three kids all will be given opportunities and maybe the hottest guy will be the guy that plays in the second half.”
Season Prediction: 9-3 (5-3). Considering how slowly NC State has started some of its past seasons, so much depends on this first game. As O’Brien said, there are 11 more left after the Tennessee tilt, but it feels like NC State needs it to get some momentum. Win that, and the Wolfpack is likely to start out 4-0 and could be 5-0 by the time Florida State comes to town on October 6. And after that, only games at North Carolina and at Clemson remain as potential road blocks. Strange things happen in ACC football, and the Wolfpack has struggled with teams it should beat like Wake Forest and Boston College in the past. But it’s reasonable to think that if NC State wins its first game, barring a few strange happening in the ACC, the schedule sets up nicely.
It seems unimaginable that a Duke football team would have so much depth at a skill position like running back that it could afford to lose a three-year starter, but that’s how far the program has come under head coach David Cutcliffe.
Senior Desmond Scott became the 39th player in Duke history to rush for 1,000 career yards last season, but Duke is nine-deep at running back without him. As injuries have decimated the wide receiver corps, Scott has been called upon to help fill that void.
“There are a lot of goals that I have in mind and a lot of statements that I want to make and moving to receiver just makes those goals a lot more accomplishable and everything else achievable,” Scott said. When asked what those goals were, Scott said, “I’m pretty sure if you really look at the research and see from a player standpoint, you can probably figure out what those goals are.”
He has 548 receiving yards and 2,821 all-purpose yards, but perhaps most impressively, Scott has caught at least one pass in 26 straight games. It’s the sixth-longest active streak in the country and first among running backs.
He played wide receiver in high school, but as he put it, he just “ran the right route, caught the ball and ran.” Playing wide receiver in college is much tougher, and it’s a different animal than catching the ball out of the backfield as a running back.
“The biggest adjustment has been reading things on the go. From the running back position, you’re looking at a defense from the backfield and then whatever it is before the ball is snapped is what it is,” Scott said. “That’s not the same thing at receiver. You’ve got to read it on the go. They might roll the Cover 2. They might go to man. You never know pre-snap what it is going to be. You have to be ready to do it on the go.”
The position switch is really geared towards doing what Cutcliffe has strived to do since he came to Duke in 2008 – get all of his best playmakers on the field. “Desmond is a really good football player. … My whole thought process from January on is to find the people that are going to make those plays I was referring to. Finding our best six, if you will – counting the quarterback – playmakers,” Cutcliffe said.
Right now, Scott is learning the Y position (essentially the slot receiver). But he’s also learning a hybrid running back position where he might run some variations of the trendy Wildcat package. And he said that his experience at running back will help as he transitions to wide receiver.
He’s been going over the playbook on his brand new Duke-issued iPad since he got it a few weeks ago, studying everything from fellow wideout Conner Vernon’s technique to just the ins and outs of a play from the wide receiver perspective.
“I know now the entirety of the play. At running back, you’re just looking at a portion of the hand signals, a portion of the play. At wide receiver, you’re looking at a portion. But from being from both positions, I know the entirety of the play and I know what a linebacker will do, what the d-lineman might do. So I kind of know where everybody’s going to be on the field at one time,” Scott said.
Scott saw some action at wide receiver in the spring, but he wasn’t sure of his position switch until Monday when offensive coordinator Kurt Roper made it official. But knowing it might come, he spent the summer running routes with quarterback Sean Renfree. Every Sunday, the two would meet up to practice for an hour or so.
And his enthusiasm for the switch didn’t seem like a front for the media. He’s the first to admit that it won’t be easy. But in his career at Duke, both from a team and an individual perspective, nothing has.
“I’m not going to say it’s been easy because it hasn’t, but I’m embracing it. It’s my senior year. Life waits for no one,” Scott said. The assembled media had a chuckle at the notion of a 22-year-old reflecting on getting older.
“You laugh, but I’m so serious because just the other day I was in high school playing football and as a freshman, you it was like, ‘I’m going to be here for a long time. Man, these practices are hard and it’s hot outside.’ But it’s my senior season and I’m trying to take every moment in. I’m taking pictures to try to have them for the future. I’m doing everything that I can to savor these moments and with wide receiver, yes it’s been hard but I’m taking it all in.”
As the conference expansion (or more euphemistically, realignment) rumor mill churned up this summer, national pundits declared ACC football dead when reports came out that Clemson and Florida State were leaving. That didn’t happen, and the players who make up the ACC rosters weren’t buying that the league was dead, or even dying.
Their interest in the expansion gossip was varied: “If I see it on a headline, I might look at a headline,” NC State quarterback Mike Glennon said, “but I feel like there’s so much going on that it’s hard to keep track of.”
But the players at the ACC Football Kickoff this past weekend in Greensboro still had opinions on everything from the misconceptions surrounding the ACC to the possible addition of Notre Dame.
Boston College defensive tackle Kaleb Ramsey brightened up immediately at the Notre Dame idea. “Playing your rival in the ACC, that would be pretty fun,” Ramsey said. “But I kind of like that Notre Dame isn’t in a conference. It’s interesting because they’re independent and they have that mystique when your’e playing them.”
Duke wide receiver Conner Vernon said he thought the Fighting Irish would be a great addition. “Notre Dame is a university that speaks for itself. I definitely that it would add more notoriety to the conference. But at the end of the day, I’m here to catch the football,” Vernon said, laughing, “so I don’t really get involved in all that.”
But Vernon was well aware of how the ACC is perceived nationally. And he, like the rest of his ACC comrades, rushed to defend the league. “People definitely undermine the ACC. People think the ACC isn’t as competitive. They’re always focused on the SEC, Big 12 and stuff like that. But the ACC is a good conference,” Vernon said.
“You can ask any team in here – week in and week out, they’ve got to come ready to play because anything can happen. There have been a bunch of upsets that happened last year. The ACC is by far a good football conference. It doesn’t get looked at like that sometimes but it is a good football conference.”
The ACC isn’t known as a rah-rah football league (“A-C-C!” chants are often tongue-in-cheek). So the veracity of some of the players’ defenses of the ACC were a bit surprising.
“Besides taking pride in your team, you take pride in your conference. This is who you play for, this is who you represent and vice versa – it represents you,” Maryland senior wide receiver Kevin Dorsey said.
“I was asked a question and they said the SEC had won the last six national championships. I said, ‘It’s about time for that to change.’ They saw the expression on my face and I was really serious about it, and it was like, ‘Okay…’ But it really is – it’s about time for that to change and really show the world what the ACC can do.”
Just because the ACC has struggled on the national stage doesn’t mean that it’s not still attractive to recruits, as Florida State and Clemson have shown with their recent hauls. And both schools are in states with higher-end SEC schools, contradicting the notion that an elite player would choose an SEC school over an ACC school if it came down to it.
But every player pointed out that a number of factors went into their decisions, perhaps the least of which was the conference affiliation. “For some people, conference may matter more than anything else. For other guys, family may matter or maybe even location or maybe teammates. They may have a few teammates who already went to a particular school and they may want to go there, too,” Dorsey said.
Glennon, whose older brother Sean played at Virginia Tech, was the only player to say he wanted to pick an ACC school specifically. “It was what I grew up watching, ACC games,” Glennon said. “It was close to home and prestigious academics, so definitely when I was being recruited, the ACC was the conference that I wanted to play in.“
Wake Forest head coach Jim Grobe said an ACC team needs only to get to the end of the year still in the hunt for a national championship. The Big East is probably the only conference more maligned than the ACC by the national media, and even it has had more national title contenders in November than the ACC in recent years.
“I think that’s the one thing that’s hurt our conference is not having a real contender for the national championship. We need to get somebody up there at the top and keep them there,” Grobe said. “Getting through an entire year without getting upset is hard, but somebody needs to do it. That’s the one thing that’s hurt is we haven’t had one of the teams make a serious run for a national title.”
Considering Wake Forest has beaten a top-25 Florida State team three of the last five seasons and pushed other top-25 ACC teams to the brink, there’s a lot of irony in Grobe’s assessment. So a reporter asked the logical follow-up: “Haven’t you been the team to knock those teams off?”
Grobe laughed, and nodded. “And I hope that continues.” He smiled, seemingly remembering all those upset wins. “We have knocked off a couple.”
Grobe doesn’t mind being known as the ACC’s spoiler, nor should he. But one of his players, senior noseguard Nikita Whitlock, does. It’s a double-edged sword: the league takes a hit if the team he loves and has dedicated his college career to does well.
“If we spoil-” he said, pausing to sigh heavily. “That’s hard, being the spoiler. But we’re a good team and if we have to spoil the conference to show the world that we’re good, that’s what we’re going to have to do.”
CHARLOTTE, NC — Not since Magic Johnson has there been an athlete more associated with his smile than Panthers quarterback Cam Newton.
Going into the draft, one publication said of Newton: “Very disingenuous – has a fake smile, comes off as very scripted and has a selfish, me-first makeup.” Maybe it seemed fake because through all the eligibility questions surrounding him last year at Auburn, he put up numbers worthy of his Heisman trophy and never lost that smile. It was almost maddening.
The Panthers played well against some of the league’s top teams, even in defeat, and lost six games by an average of 6.5 points before Sunday. Commentators raved about Newton, who averaged 427 yards in his first two starts – both losses.
He posted his lowest QB rating of his young career (61.7) as the Panthers fell 30-3. He completed 23-of-40 passes for 212 yards, but averaged a season-low 5.3 yards per attempt and had an interception.
Newton had always scoffed at the notion of the Panthers “moral victories”. But Sunday, he knew his poor play contributed to this demoralizing defeat. Every furrow of his brow and pursing of his lips seemed a thinly-veiled attempt to hide his anguish.
“This is embarrassing, man,” he said afterwards, spitting the words out angrily to get their bitter taste out of his mouth. “When you go each week and you try to do as much as you can to achieve those goals that you have for yourself, and then when it doesn’t happen, it leaves you scratching your head.” He paused, almost as if he actually wanted to scratch his head. But he didn’t.
He was uneasy and restless as he rocked back and forth while clutching the podium. He sighed, looked down at his hands and even looked up at the ceiling as he searched for answers. He found none.
“I sound like a broken record,” Newton said. “I’m getting tired of just having the same speech every week of just execution, but something’s got to give. I can’t just keep lingering on with the negatives because life goes on, this game goes on. I’ve got a ton of faith in this team, a ton of faith in these coaches and I’ve just got to continously get better.”
Scott Fowler of the Charlotte Observer asked Newton if a team he played for had ever gone without a touchdown, and before he could finish the question, Newton said, “Never.” He nodded his head emphatically with each syllable as he added, “Ever, ever.” He fell silent and his eyes steeled as if determined to never let the indignity of failing to reach the end zone ever happen again.
He’s a rookie, and he’s allowed to have games like this. When evaluating quarterbacks, no one will dismiss him because his team isn’t winning. But when he stands in front of the media, you can almost see the losing, the sense of failure, eroding away at his insides like acid.
But it is okay for him to have a bad game. More importantly than the outside world or the media knowing that, Newton needs to know it. He needs to understand that wins don’t come easily in the NFL and unfortunately, his team will lose more often than it wins, especially for the next few years.
No athlete could possibly have more competitive fire in him than wide receiver Steve Smith. He’s been through everything imaginable, including a two-win season last year, and he’s still with us. Smith has even tried to calm Newton a time or two after a loss.
But Newton’s interpretation of something Smith said in the locker room before the game about the legacy a player leaves was poignant. “Tomorrow’s not promised. The next game is not promised. If this was my last game…” he trailed off, making a face as if disgusted that this could be the last memory he would leave behind. …I don’t even know what to say.”
“There’s a level of play that you have, some standards that you set for yourself and as an individual, if you don’t play to those standards, what do you do? Do you think it’s okay to do that?” His tone was almost accusing, as if every media member should feel guilty for excusing his bad game.
Fans love his intensity and his hatred of losing, as do his teammates. It’s easy to see why his teammates rally behind him at every level. Newton has tormented opposing defenses for most of his rookie season. Now, he needs to learn to stop tormenting himself.