Lessons learned have 18th-ranked Wolfpack ready for next challenge

NC State travels to Miami riding a four-game winning streak

NC State, which has won four straight since losing at Mississippi State, heads to Miami to face the 2-4 Hurricanes on Saturday. (Mary Schwalm / AP Photo)

A 24-10 loss at Mississippi State on Sept. 11 was the low point in NC State’s 2021 football season to date.

It may also turn out to be the best thing that could have happened to the championship-minded Wolfpack.

“I think when you lose a game, obviously it’s always going to count as a loss in the record books,” coach Dave Doeren said Monday during his regular weekly session with the media. “But if you can use it and really learn from it, it’s not a loss for the season. We did that.”

Doeren implied that his team may have gotten a little too full of itself after spending the offseason being hyped as a legitimate ACC Atlantic Division contender, a status based on the return of 19 starters from last year’s eight-win squad.

Its confidence only grew after an impressive opening night shutout of South Florida.

The swagger quickly disappeared when Mississippi State’s Lideatrick Griffin returned the opening kickoff for a 100-yard touchdown a week later. The Wolfpack never recovered on the way to a loss that knocked it out of the national conversation before it even had a chance to get started.

But because of the lessons learned from that disastrous performance in Starkville, a result Doeren described as “a great teachable moment,” State has gradually regained its momentum. It heads into Saturday’s game at Miami having won four straight — including a rare victory against traditional nemesis Clemson — and rising to No. 18 in both national polls.

“We learned a tough lesson that day. It was a good lesson to learn,” Doeren said of the loss. “Sometimes you can’t teach them something without adversity. When things get selfish or things get fragmented because guys are in an emotional state instead of a focused state, you can have bad things as a football team.

“I thought our guys took it to heart. They owned it. As coaches we learned a lot with our guys in that, and we got better from it. Not that I ever want to lose a game, but I’m thankful we lost that game the way we did that early in the season because it’s helped us.”

State’s growth was on full display at BC on Saturday.

Playing on the road for the first time since Mississippi State, the Wolfpack (5-1, 2-0 ACC) kept its composure while surviving a choppy first half, made some key adjustments at halftime, then blew the game open by getting contributions from all three phases in by far its best 30 minutes of the season.

The offense contributed a pair of touchdowns on passes by Devin Leary to Dylan Parham and Thayer Thomas, the latter covering 79 yards. Freshman safety Devan Boykin got a special teams score by scooping up a botched punt and returning it 34 yards to the end zone.

The defense, meanwhile, held BC to minus-3 yards rushing in a scoreless second half while tacking on a fourth quarter safety as an exclamation point.

“I thought we really played good complementary football. That’s something I’m preaching with these guys, and they’ve bought into it for two years now,” Doeren said. “Different sides of the ball — offense, defense, kicking game, our sideline energy — it’s all clicking and helping each other. Different parts of the team sparked us at different times of the game.”

Doeren said that it’s going to take just as complete an effort to keep the momentum going this week.

Although Miami has been perhaps the biggest disappointment in the ACC this season at 2-4 overall (0-2 ACC) and has lost star quarterback D’Eriq King to a season-ending injury, the Hurricanes of former Wolfpack defensive assistant Manny Diaz are still averaging 32.3 points per game — the exact same mark as State.

They scored 42 last Saturday in a close loss at UNC.

“Obviously their record is not impressive, but they’re playing a lot better than I expected to see them on tape,” Doeren said. “They’ve played some great teams. … They’re scoring a lot of points. They’re very fast on the perimeter. We know it’s going to be a tough game.”

Because of Miami’s struggles, it’s also a game that won’t likely change anyone’s opinion about the Wolfpack.

And that’s fine with Doeren, even though he made it a point to play the “we don’t get any respect” card in the aftermath of Saturday’s win.

“We’ve got a lot of games left. We’ve got six more games,” he said. “We’ve just got to play as good as we can play in all those games. It’s been a crazy year in college football, so let’s see where we end up. I’m really not worried about where we are at right now. I think it’ll all take care of itself.”