It’s not a secret to anyone in Wolfpack nation that Tom O’Brien has an issue with starting weak. While for the last two seasons many fans of Tom O’Brien have used an 8-4 and 7-5 regular season record to demonstrate that Tom’s turned a corner, last weekend’s game highlighted an important trend that we’ve seen for 6 years now: NC State simply isn’t that good in week one.
First, the good news…
We showed streaks of solid play Friday night and our defense made some outstanding stops, much to the pleasure of fans who were concerned over the impacts of having a pseudo-inexperienced linebacking corp. We leave last week’s game against Tennessee and move on to what should be a notably easier UConn this Saturday. Despite tough pressure, Glennon completed for almost 59% and 288 yards. Our rushing game seemed much improved over past seasons, averaging 3.7 yards per carry… not great, but better than we did against tough opponents in past seasons. Our defense started the game with a great 3-and-out, holding Tennessee to just 4 yards gained.
NC State didn’t play a solid 60-minute game, but in short bursts they showed what they can be this season. Strengthen the offensive line and you don’t see 4 interceptions. Don’t see those 4 interceptions and NC State has a chance at winning a tough rough win. It’s not an excuse, but a look at what “might be” moving forward this season.
Now the bad news…
While some may argue that “it’s the first game” is some kind of valid excuse for losing your season opener, the truth is that O’Brien doesn’t have a great track record of turning bad first games around. In 2007, he followed a UCF opener with losses against BC, Clemson, Louisville, and FSU (the streak’s only interruption was an FCS victory against Wofford). In 2008, he followed a 0-34 shut-out against USC with a quick FCS victory, followed by a Clemson loss. In 2009, Tom was able to come back from an early USC 3-7 loss with a win over 2 FCS opponents and a big win against Pitt, but then took a 4 game slide which lead to NC State’s 5-7 overall record. In fact, the only completely successful season O’Brien has had, he came out swinging with a 4-game winning streak in 2010. In 2011, his first FBS game was a loss against Wake Forest which he would follow with 2 more D-1A losses against Cincy and GT until finally playing a weak Central Michigan team.
Year-in and year-out of hearing fans who are perhaps more loyal to a coaching staff than to a program shout “How dare you question what the coach is saying?!?! He knows what he’s doing!” was started to lose it’s impact in the third quarter as victory seemed bleaker and bleaker when I saw all of the things the coaching staff had noted was a strength turn out to be NC State’s downfall. Glennon threw 4 interceptions. The offensive line allowed Tennessee’s 3-4 to pressure Glennon. Bray was able to unload 333 yards on our secondary. Everything that should have been a strength turned out to be a weakness.
The point is that O’Brien does not, by any stretch, have a great track record starting out a season unless he comes out hot against his first big opponent. Are there excuses for a season here or there? Of course, but those excuses don’t make NC State appear to be any greater of a football program in the greater scheme of things. When you figure that NC State is in a conference with other great programs that ensure that any given season you are going to play, at least, 3 tough ranked opponents (FSU, Clemson, and whoever wins the coastal division), you can’t afford to lose against your first tough opponent and shrug it off like it doesn’t matter if you really want to end up with one of those 10-2 seasons.
UConn is weaker than Tennessee, but they are not a weak team by any stretch, particularly when you consider that they have Coach Paul Pasqualoni rebuilding their program. Last season UConn went 5-7, but it was also the first year of Coach Paul’s tenure. He has proven he can coach up a team quickly and can do it at a program that less than 10 years ago was making waves as a new program to be reckoned with. Their offense was a question mark in the offense and a solid victory over their opening FCS opponents hasn’t done much to convince anyone one way or the other, but their offense doesn’t exactly appear ‘broken’ by any stretch. NC State fans may be relieved that they don’t have to follow up Tenn with FSU, but UConn isn’t exactly Central Michigan, either. (View the entire UConn pre-season preview here.)
My optimistic predictions over the rest of the season haven’t really changed. I still think NC State will drop contests against FSU and Clemson and likely lose the Virginia game (already explained here). That puts NC State at 8-4 in regular season play. At 8-4, we could be looking just as happy as we were in 2010, but for that to happen, O’Brien is going to have to break his own curse and bounce back from an opening loss with a win against Pasqualoni’s UConn.