Five questions to ponder before kickoff


The North State Journal—The North State Journal
Could today's game against Memphis be the beginning of the end for coach Scottie Montgomery at ECU? (North State Journal file photo)

November is upon us and with it, the home stretch of the college football season has begun.

It’s that time of year in which good seasons can become historic, mediocre seasons can be saved, bad seasons can turn ugly and coaches will determine whether or not they’ll be back again next year.

There are examples of each among the state’s FBS contingent. So as we wait to see which direction all those teams go during the final month of the regular season, here are five questions to think about and consider:

1. Is Florida State the perfect opponent to help NC State regain its confidence?

That might sound like a strange question to ask given the Seminoles’ history since joining the ACC. But the fact is that the one-time conference powerhouse is currently a smoldering dumpster fire in coach Willie Taggart’s first season on the job. They’re 4-4 and in danger or missing out on a bowl for the first time in 37 years. They’re also coming off a 59-10 home loss to Clemson in which three players were ejected — two of which for throwing punches.

Taggart called out his players after the game for quitting and suspended leading receiver Nyqwan Murray and reserve linebacker Zaquandre White for the first half of today’s game as punishment for their lack of discipline last week. The Wolfpack will also likely be seeing a backup quarterback, although James Blackmon did start most of last week in the absence of injured starter Deondre Francois.

Of course, NC State hasn’t been any great shakes lately either after losing consecutive road games at Clemson and Syracuse. Still, coach Dave Doeren’s team stands a great chance of getting back on the right track and turning this good season into a historic one against a defense that is allowing 287.9 yards passing per game and 12 passing plays of 40 yards or more this season and has had a hard time blocking practice dummies, let alone live pass rushers the likes of Darian Roseboro, Larrell Murchison and James Smith-Williams.

2. Which game will produce more points, UNC-Georgia Tech or Wake Forest-Syracuse?

If you’re a fan of defense, stay away from these two games. Both matchups have a history of providing basketball scores and today’s contests don’t promise to be any different — especially the one at BB&T Field between the Deacons and Orange.

A year ago, Wake rallied from a 14-point third-quarter deficit to pull away for a 64-43 victory at the Carrier Dome. The game was notable in that the teams combined for an ACC record 1,355 yards of total offense (734 for the Deacons, 621 for Syracuse). It should also be noted that many of the same players that helped produce those video game numbers are back and just as productive this year.

The Orange, led by quarterback Eric Dungey, ranks second in the ACC behind only Clemson in scoring offense at 43.6 points per game. Wake is scoring at rate of 33.4 points per game, but is coming off an effort at Louisville last Saturday in which it rolled up 56 points and 591 yards of offense.

Down the road in Chapel Hill, UNC and Georgia Tech will be playing at the site of their memorable (or forgettable, if you’re a defensive coach) 68-50 shootout in 2012 that is still the highest scoring football game in conference history.

This year’s Yellow Jackets have been up-and-down, but when they don’t turn the ball over in their triple-option attack, they’ve put up 60 or more points twice already and just hung 49 on Bud Foster and Virginia Tech in their most recent outing. While UNC hasn’t been nearly as prolific as it’s been in the past, it has the potential to put up a big number if it can ever figure out how to get into the end zone instead of consistently stalling inside the opponent’s 25-yard line.

3. Can Duke avoid another long midseason losing streak?

The Blue Devils have a history of going into midseason funks, with a six-game losing streak in 2015, a three-gamer that sent the 2016 season off the rails and a four-game slide that nearly did the same to last season before coach David Cutcliffe’s team recovered to win its final three — including a bowl.

This year’s team was sailing along at 5-1 until back-to-back losses against Virginia and Pittsburgh, the latter coming by way of a 54-45 shootout in which Duke led until the final five seconds. Now, to avoid a third-straight loss, the Blue Devils will have to go on the road and beat a Miami team that has dominated them since joining the ACC. The Hurricanes have won 12 of 13 meetings as conference rivals, with the only official Duke win coming in 2013 (although the ACC later ruled that the seven-lateral play that gave Miami its victory in 2016 was illegal and shouldn’t have counted).

In order to reverse that trend, get their sixth win to ensure bowl eligibility and avoid extending another midseason losing streak, the Blue Devils are going to need running back Deon Jackson and their suddenly rejuvenated offense to put up another big number. Jackson set a single-game school record with 403 all-purpose yards against Pitt, but repeating that won’t be easy against a Miami defense allowing an average of only 262 yards per game. The good news for Duke is that the Hurricanes have quarterback issues and are coming off back-to-back losses (against Virginia and Boston College) of their own.

4. Is today’s game against Memphis the beginning of the end for coach Scottie Montgomery at ECU?

The Pirates are a vastly improved team this season, especially on defense, and the emergence of dynamic freshman quarterback Holton Ahlers into the starting role certainly gives promise for the future. But the bottom line in big-time college sports is still winning, which is why Montgomery’s seat is getting hotter the cooler the weather starts to become.

Some of the third-year coach’s current woes are of his own doing.

After giving up 70 points in an ugly season-ending loss at Memphis last season, Montgomery proclaimed that his team would qualify for a bowl in 2018. It was a bold prediction for a program that won only three games in each of the previous two seasons, and it set the bar awfully high for the coach looking to save his job.

Montgomery might be regretting that claim now that the Pirates are 2-5 and coming off three-straight losses. In order to accomplish his goal of bowl eligibility, ECU will have to go 4-1 for the rest of the season.

The silver lining to that dark situation is that there are some winnable games still left on the schedule. That includes today’s game against the Tigers, who are a mere shadow of the team they went 10-3, won the American Athletic Conference’s West Division and gave eventual “national champion” Central Florida all it could handle in the league championship game.

This year, Memphis is just 4-4 after having lost its last two. But it’s still no slouch. In order to have a shot at winning the game and turning its season around Ahlers is going to have to avoid turnovers — he had three in his first career start two weeks ago and the Tigers’ T.J. Carter has five interceptions already this season — and find a way to contain running back Darrell Henderson, who averages better than 10 yards per carry and ranks second nationally with 1,148 yards this season.

5. Can Appalachian State bounce back without quarterback Zac Thomas in the lineup?

The Mountaineers are an offensive juggernaut when all their weapons are available to them. But without leading rusher Jalin Moore and quarterback Zac Thomas, they were only able to muster 14 points in a loss at Georgia Southern 10 days ago. Moore is out for the rest of the season with an ankle injury and Thomas went down on the first series in Statesboro with a concussion. His availability for today’s game at Coastal Carolina is being listed as a game-time decision.

If he can’t go, coach Scott Satterfield will be forced to use either redshirt freshman Peyton Derrick or sophomore Jacob Huesman under center. Neither is a comforting option. Derrick went just 3 of 12 for 73 yards with two interceptions against Georgia Southern. Huesman wasn’t much better at 8 of 16 for 67 yards and two picks, although he did throw for one touchdown.

This is a dangerous game for App no matter who plays quarterback. Although it has dominated the Chanticleers in the past, winning all four previous meetings, today’s game will be the first in the series played outside of Boone. It’s also Coastal’s homecoming, which could mean even more motivation for a rapidly improving team that’s just one win away from bowl eligibility for the first time.

That’s all for this week. Enjoy the games!