RALEIGH — After having its opening game rescheduled because of COVID-19 issues, the NC State football team completed its amended 11-game schedule without further interruption on Saturday.
That makes the 2020 regular season, which came to an end with a 23-13 win against Georgia Tech at Carter-Finley Stadium, a success regardless of the results.
The fact that the Wolfpack won eight games, doubling its win total from last season, and improved from one ACC victory to a school-record seven, makes it all the more impressive.
A year that began with coach Dave Doeren squarely on the hot seat is ending with him front and center in the conversation for ACC Coach of the Year.
Even though Doeren is likely to finish behind Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly in the voting for the award, the job he and his staff did in turning things around despite adversity beyond the coronavirus pandemic has changed the narrative surrounding their program and put it back onto a positive trajectory.
“It’s been a crazy year, but to break a record that these guys are very proud of … I thought it was outstanding,” the eighth-year coach said after Saturday’s Senior Day win in which quarterback Bailey Hockman threw for 309 yards and kicker Christopher Dunn became State’s career leader in field goals. “I’m just proud to be a part of this football team with these young men and this coaching staff.
“Looking at where we came from a year ago, we had one ACC win. Now we have seven. That’s quite a year when you talk about improvement. The beauty of it is that a lot of these guys are back. It’s going to be a fun offseason,”
The Wolfpack (8-3, 7-3 ACC) still have one game left to play and will learn their bowl destination and opponent when they’re announced on Dec. 20. Regardless of the outcome, this offseason promises to be a lot less eventful than the last one.
It started with Doeren restructuring his staff by hiring five new assistants.
Despite the disruption of spring practice — and all other sports around the country — by the coronavirus and a summer in which the only access the new coaches had to their players was virtual, the transition paid immediate dividends.
The most significant change was the addition of offensive coordinator Tim Beck, whose play-calling and experience in developing quarterbacks helped overcome a midseason injury to starter Devin Leary and improve State from dead last in the ACC in scoring at 16.1 points per game in conference play to the top half of the league at 32.7.
“The hardest thing you do as a coach is fire somebody on your staff. I went through some tough times last offseason,” Doeren said. “All the decisions I made weren’t because they weren’t good coaches, I just wanted to get a different type of feel in our building. I wanted the power of positivity to take over, not just with our kids but with our coaches.”
While the changes had the desired effect, the memory of a disappointing 2019 season that ended with six straight losses — all to conference opponents — was just as much of a motivating factor for this year’s Wolfpack.
“I took last season very personally,” said senior Emeka Emezie, State’s leading receiver with 42 catches for 694 yards and five touchdowns. “Honestly, all of us did.
“Every single game we stood back up through adversity. We learned from it last year and we brought back the same guys. Different people stepped into different leadership roles and really took that head-on. I feel like that’s what made our team so resilient this year.”
The Wolfpack were tested often, starting with the COVID outbreak that disrupted preseason camp, caused its opening game at Virginia Tech to be rescheduled and forced its starting quarterback to sit out because of contact tracing.
Despite the obstacles, State got the season off to a winning start by rallying late to beat Wake Forest with Hockman stepping in for Leary and leading the way.
Hockman would later be called into permanent service after Leary suffered a broken leg against Duke on Oct. 18, a victory that saw the Wolfpack battle back from a double-digit deficit to win an ACC game for the first time in Doeren’s tenure.
It was one of several different ways State won games this season, ranging from high-scoring shootouts such as the 45-42 opener against the Deacons to a defensive struggle against nationally ranked Liberty that was preserved on a blocked field goal on the game’s final play for a 15-14 win.
That success, Hockman said, is a direct reflection of Doeren’s leadership.
“He’s been extremely positive to everybody, just building people up and helping the program excel,” the redshirt junior said. “He preaches that all the time.”
Doeren refused to speculate on whether this has been the best coaching job of his career, which includes an undefeated season at Northern Illinois. But he acknowledged that it’s been one of his most satisfying.
“It’s a joy to coach this football team,” he said. “It’s just a great group of people to be with. They truly want to be better. You can coach them hard. You can tell them the truth, and they give you everything they’ve got. It’s just fun to be around guys like that.”