As I mentioned in the comments of Derek’s recent column, I think there’s really only one way to approach the 2010 football season. Well, only one way that doesn’t involve a great deal of “wishcasting.” And as I am quite fond of saying – “hope” is not a strategy.
I think certain things about NC State football in 2010 are pretty much set in stone. First and foremost, the punting game will be atrocious. You know you are in a world of hurt when you have to beg Jeff Ruiz to come back as a 5th year senior. One doesn’t typically see “great leaps forward” with respect to punting. If you sucked as a 4th year junior, chances are you’ll suck as a 5th year senior.
Second, the Wolfpack defense will at the very least be extremely thin, and with mediocre athleticism. More likely, the unit will be all-around bad, just like it was in 2009 – when it didn’t matter how shitty Ruiz punted. Wherever any credible offense took over, a score was extremely likely. But even if you want to “hope” (there’s that damned word again) for the best-case scenario – this is not a unit you want to see on the field for 30-35 minutes, or God help us, even more.
Last, but not least, you have kick coverage. Perhaps this is where Ruiz is ironically an asset – he won’t outkick his coverage. Because in 2009, that coverage was atrocious. Of the three units we’ve discussed so far, this is probably the least set in stone. I imagine special teams tackling and technique has more natural variance from year to year. But I’m not taking that for granted.
That’s the bad news. And admittedly, it’s a whole lot of it. But don’t mark down a 5-7 record and a host of pink slips just yet. For there is a way forward. NC State has a dynamic, all-ACC caliber QB – and his backup also has great potential. For the first time, I look at the OL depth chart and like what I see. The typical Tom O’Brien OL recruits are old enough to make a difference – and I truly expect that they will. Mix in a matchup nightmare (TE/”midnight toker” George Bryan) and a fairly deep and talented WR corps, and you have a recipe to score lots of points.
The key? Maximize the number of offensive plays and possessions. Minimize how long your defense stays on the field. Go into the game with the mentality that you will outscore the opponent, not hold them down. If you have to win 56-49 – it’s just as good as a 16-14 slugfest.
How do you do that? It’s very easy. You almost never punt, or kick FGs. You employ trick onsides/squib kickoffs, from multiple formations. With great regularity. You don’t deviate from this strategy because you are playing with the lead. Mathematically, it has been shown to be the logical course of action for a typical NFL team. For a team with such extreme special teams and defensive weaknesses as NC State, it’s really a no brainer. Forget about this being “bold” – why in the hell would you not do it, given what we have to work with?
And it’s not like it hasn’t been done before. You have what you have to work with. Tom O’Brien may prefer to win the old fashioned way. Too bad – this roster can’t do it. And there really is no tomorrow – with O’Brien in his fourth season and obviously approaching retirement, it’s now or never. A boring 5-7 team will yield a dud recruiting class, and the program will be officially dead. Nothing. To. Lose.
And what about the “psychology” angle? Won’t this make the defensive players feel as if the staff has no confidence in them? First, I say “too damned bad.” Last season happened, pretending otherwise does no good. But there’s more to it than that.
Second, the defense will still be put in position to make things happen. The opponent will take over in Wolfpack territory quite often. They will have to play hard and aggressive to make stops, and/or get turnovers. There’s no more “bend but don’t break” (which we played like “bend and methodically break” anyway). And since this philosophy will only have the defense on the field for 20-25 minutes per game, they will be physically capable of playing more aggressively. And if you overplay and give up a quick six? Big deal, that works with the gameplan quite nicely. More time of possession for the offense. Which means more opposing defenders lining up gassed, or on the sidelines getting IV hydration. Win-win situation. You just trust the offense to keep scoring. It’s their job to win the game. The defense and special teams just set up the offense to do their thing.
Long, methodical scoring drives by our opponents killed NC State in 2009. You saw backup defenders on the field in key fourth quarter possessions – because the starters had been on the field too damned long. And while you might have some hope for a handful of starters, there’s none whatsoever for the Wolfpack’s depth guys. Don’t forget that Nate Irving will likely be limited to 20 or so snaps per game. Do you think we’re better served with him on the field for half our defensive snaps, or about one-third?
Like I said, there’s no logical case against this strategy. I think John Tenuta has enough “mad genius” in him to embrace his defense’s role in it. And Tom O’Brien has shown some basic understanding of mathematical odds. Now, somebody just needs to get him good and drunk over in Ireland, and have this discussion.