by Joe Schwartz
CARTER-FINLEY STADIUM/RALEIGH - Two weeks ago Tom O'Brien warned his squad after a dramatic comeback victory against Pittsburgh that they weren't a good football team, pointing to 12 penalties as a sign of a lack of discipline. Well, they corrected the penalty problem, completing Saturday's contest without a yellow flag thrown in their direction, marking their first penalty-free game since 1989.
Just about everything else was a disaster as N.C. State (3-3, 0-2 ACC) lost to their crosstown rivals for the first time in 12 games and the first time in Raleigh since 1984. It's been two games since O'Brien's speech, and two stinging losses to in-state teams.
The first offender in the 49-28 drubbing? Passing defense.
The Wolfpack let Thaddeus Lewis toss for 459 yards and five touchdowns, both career highs, mostly on quick routes in spread formation.
"Whatever we're playing, man or zone, we weren't even in the same area code sometimes," a dejected O'Brien said.
"We think we're playing our best guys, but whatever we're asking them to do we're not getting it from them."
Some of that stems from having started five different secondaries in as many games. Duke was able to exploit the lack of understanding between a young secondary that left gaping holes while playing zone and that missed tackles all day, ballooning five-yard grabs into 35-yard scampers.
N.C. State came into the game leading the nation in total defense, based mainly on shutting down the run. Duke, and Wake Forest last week, studied that tape, and found a glaring weakness that O'Brien will have to correct to have any shot of a successful season. They now need to win four of six games, all of which are against ACC foes, to become bowl eligible (only one of their two victories against Football Championship Subdivision teams counts).
A sullen group of players realized as much Saturday, after Duke scored 21 straight to close out the game.
Sure, you can pin the game on the defense, and looking Lewis's production, a lot of people will do just that, but it's not like N.C. State's offense played well enough to win either. After seeming like they couldn't be stopping, driving for touchdowns on their first three possessions, they were shut out for the rest of the game, a second half kickoff returned for a TD yielding the team's only other points.
Senior running back Toney Baker was flummoxed when asked what Duke did to lock up.
"I'm not even sure what to tell you," he said. "You can't have a great 1st half and not score in the second half. We've yet to play a full game of offense."
Throw in two turnovers in the punting game (a muff and a bouncing ball hitting a blocker), one of which resulted in a touchdown and the other of which set up Duke on the 11-yard line for a score, and the picture was pretty grim Saturday with players being forced to talk about the Blue Devils being a team on the rise.
As much as O'Brien and his players had the standard answers after the game, you know the "it's time to circle the wagons," "we've just go to get back, study the tape and make corrections," "our season is not over" lines, it's going to be much tougher for them than last year, when they rattled off four straight wins, which ironically began with a win at Duke, to finish 6-5.
That season was more about quarterback Russell WIlson getting healthy. There's no player to wait on this year. It'll have to be about the guys they've got getting better, the schemes better developed and executed and opposing teams being forced to do more than just pass to win. It has to start next week, when O'Brien returns to Boston College and faces his former assistant Frank Spaziani.