Part V: 2009 (and Beyond)
2008 was State’s third consecutive losing season while after two seasons, Tom O’Brien is 11-14. Regardless, many of us have seen enough evidence to make us confident that a breakout is imminent. Meanwhile, some of you believe that this will be that breakout season. The rationale is that after a dismal first half last season, State demonstrated marked improvement down the stretch, and the level of play in November is more indicative of what we should expect than that in September.
After all, for the first time in a half-decade, there is absolutely no issue at quarterback – Russell Wilson proved he’s a leader and that he’ll deliver in the clutch. He threw 17 touchdowns with only a single interception in 11 games, and he was both the conference’s highest rated passer (133.9) and led it in total offense (213 yards per game). He was also both highly effective and efficient in the red zone, as State was second in the ACC with 27 touchdowns and only two turnovers (one fumble, one turnover on downs).
O’Brien’s second team played with greater discipline – we averaged 42.3 penalty yards per game in 2008 (T-4th ACC), an improvement of 12.2 yards per game over 2007 (54.5, 7th ACC) and 15.7 yards per game from 2006 (58.0, 11th ACC). Turnover margin also improved – we were plus-eight in 2008 (3rd ACC), an improvement of 24 over 2007 (minus-16, 12th ACC) and 19 over 2006 (minus-11, 12th ACC). The much-improved team – with a quarterback, better discipline and a favorable turnover margin – returns seven starters on offense and six (minus Nate Irving) on defense, and for the first time under O’Brien, there is at least some depth at the skill positions and on both lines, which leaves us a little more wriggle room to accommodate minor injuries throughout the season.
All the above makes for a very good team and a realistic shot at playing in Tampa on December 5. Right?
Not so fast, my friend. Personally, I just don’t think this is our breakout year. But then again, a lifetime of experience requires me to be cautiously optimistic, so my expectations are tempered for 2009.
Besides being a losing team last season (6-7), that defense was pretty dreadful. We were last in the conference in scoring defense (26.3 points per game), total defense (390.9 yards per game), and passing defense (248.7); 11th in pass defense efficiency (129.7); eighth in rushing defense (142.2); and 10th in sacks (23). We were last in opponent first downs (278), opponent fourth down conversions (12), and allowed the most red zone scoring opportunities (50). That was a pretty wretched defense before Irving’s injury left a big ol’ gaping hole on the weak side, likely for the season.
Counting the Florida State loss last season, when he played only a few series, Irving missed a total of four games, but still managed to make his overwhelming presence known with 80 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, four interceptions and nine passes defended. Now granted, while his injury isn’t as devastating to us as it would have been the past two seasons, it’s still a tall order to expect middle linebackers Ray Michel (who is now the only returning starter at linebacker from 2008) and the untested – albeit very talented – group of Sterling Lucas, Terrell Manning and Dwayne Maddux to immediately step in and fill Irving’s hole. But then again, Nate was untested as a redshirt freshman in 2007, when he played in all 11 games and eventually earned the starting role for the final four games of the season. So while it’s not impossible, it would be unexpected.
Looking at the schedule, my realistic prediction is a record of 7-5 and a trip to Orlando to the Champs Sports Bowl.
We have a manageable conference schedule, with Duke, Maryland, Clemson, and Carolina each at home; we end the season with three of our final four games at Carter-Finley, and November has been the stretch when O’Brien’s first two teams have each come together. The road is obviously less favorable, but not entirely unbearable. We don’t have to go to either Atlanta or Charlottesville, which have both been big black holes for State football over the past two decades. Instead, in October we have that dreaded trip to Winston – one win (2001) in our last six visits – and then up to Chestnut Hill, where we’ve lost in our past two visits (2005 & 2007); but we (somehow) won our last trip to Blacksburg (2004) and we’ve actually managed Tallahassee fairly well this decade – wins in 2001 and 2005, and we came up just short in the two-overtime thriller in 2003.
The fact remains, we have to win the games we’re supposed to win, especially at home. If we want to make New Year’s plans (or even late December plans), then we must take care of business against Murray State, Gardner-Webb (who gave Georgia Tech all they could handle last season), and the suddenly-chic Duke. South Carolina is a game we should win at home, but right now, I see losses at Wake, Florida State, and Virginia Tech, and probably at home to the Big East favorite, Pittsburgh. And for all of you that think that Thanksgiving Saturday matchup is a sure-bet, just know that it scares me to death – not only will they be a very good team, but does anyone remember the last time we beat Carolina three straight? Exactly.
What worries me most is that Russell Wilson won’t sneak up on anyone this year, which is how we’ll find out just how good he really is – the great ones like Philip are prolific despite whatever game plan an opposing coach can concoct to counter him. I also expect at least some regression in his seemingly-outrageous numbers. But, while it’s unrealistic to expect Wilson to put up the same touchdown-to-interception ratio as last season, it’s not unreasonable to expect him to continue making good decisions or keep escaping danger in the pocket. This is why he can inflict such chaos upon an opposing defense in so many different ways — it’s proven nearly impossible to trap him in a collapsing pocket and even more difficult to force him into a bad decision. I fully expect him to give opposing defenses absolute fits, and hopefully Owen Spencer will haul in a few more that hit his hands in the open field this season.
And if Wilson somehow improves over last year, then ACC beware.
See how I hedge? I really want to be the optimist, but c’mon, I’ve been a State fan my entire life. Hope and optimism are not synonomous — undying hope and loyalty are inherent traits of the State fan, but certainly not optimism.
I’m not planning to throw oranges onto the field in Tampa after we beat Carolina for the second straight week, but I do have certain expectations for success. Foremost, this season I expect to keep demonstrating the measured improvement we’ve shown over the past two years with our discipline – fewer penalties at inopportune times – and increased turnover margin – creating scoring opportunities while limiting those we give away. I also want to see solid progression on the offensive line, for which O’Brien is renowned; in 2008 we were seventh in the ACC in time of possession (29:38), so this year we need to more effectively establish the run to limit our opponents’ scoring chances. Simple, huh?
Oh, and beat Carolina.
Look, I don’t expect to be in Miami on January 5. But Nashville – or even Atlanta with a win in Tallahassee or Blacksburg – isn’t a reach, is it?
I sure hope not, because next year I’m likely to become completely unreasonable.
LRM Note: Since I didn’t own a digital camera until after the 2004 season, the stadium pics at the top of Parts II & III were courtesy of my Canadian buddy who sits with me in Section 30 (I took the ones in Parts IV & V); he threatened to contact his lawyer if I didn’t acknowledge that. So thanks, eh.