NC State gets a second chance at its second 10-win season


ORLANDO, Fla. — When NC State coach Dave Doeren walked off the field in mid-October following a blowout loss at Duke, he felt uneasy, embarrassed, unsure — mystified, quite frankly.

The Wolfpack were 4-3 and Doeren had already benched starting quarterback Brennan Armstrong to shake up the offense, but losing 24-3 to the Blue Devils felt like rock bottom. The Wolfpack converted on just 4 of 15 third-down chances and had 11 penalties. NC State headed into its open date staring at a five-game stretch that would define its season.

Doeren held a team meeting with a simple message: “I told them, I’ve lost a lot of games, I’ve won a lot of games, but I haven’t left a lot of stadiums feeling the way I did that night and I don’t ever want to feel that way again. So we had a really transparent come-to-Jesus meeting.”

He asked his players and staff to find a way to regroup, to pull together and play together. NC State won five straight to close the season and now has a chance to make history. A win in the Pop-Tarts Bowl over Kansas State on Thursday (5:45 p.m. ET, ESPN) would give NC State just its second 10-win season — a remarkable turnaround considering where it sat Oct. 14.

“We showed incredible resiliency,” Doeren said following a bowl practice in Orlando. “They love each other, they stuck together when a lot of things were against them and just found a way to come together and not only win games, but improve. We got better and better as the season went on, and really peaked the last three weeks.”

Doeren became the winningest coach in school history this season — his 11th with the Wolfpack. NC State is one of only five teams in the Power 5 that has won eight or more games in each of the past four seasons (this includes 2020 in which many teams had a COVID-19 truncated season). The others are Georgia, Alabama, Notre Dame and Clemson.

Longevity and consistent success is one thing. Getting to 10 wins has been remarkably elusive for a program that has yearned for decades to take the step from good to elite. Yet each time the program is poised to do so, it falls short. There is a specific phrase NC State fans use to describe this phenomenon. NC State “stuff” is a more family-friendly version.

In 118 years of football, NC State has one 11-win season, coming in 2002. Thirteen other times, it has won nine games. Doeren has now won nine games four different times, including 2021 — a season that still hurts to think about.

NC State went 9-3 in the 2021 regular season, beating Clemson, Florida State and North Carolina for the first time since Doeren’s arrival. A three-point loss to Wake Forest kept the Wolfpack out of the ACC championship game, but they felt good about their chances to get to 10 wins in the Holiday Bowl against UCLA.

Hours before kickoff, the team learned on social media that UCLA would not have enough players because of COVID-19. The gut punch was immediate. “I remember sitting in my room, and then we got a text talking about a team meeting, and the game was canceled,” said senior tight end Trent Pennix. “I opened my window and literally screamed out of it. I was so mad. I was like, ‘Y’all could have literally at least given us a little warning.'”

“I don’t know if I’m over it,” Doeren said. “I feel like something that got stolen from me. It was a worse feeling than losing the game. We just had such a good feeling walking down to the team room like we’re going to go win. Sometimes as a coach, you just know. That’s what made it really hard.”

Holiday Bowl officials presented NC State with the bowl trophy before they flew home. Doeren thought that should have been enough to declare NC State the winners, so it could finally have a second 10-win season. He wanted an asterisk put into the school record book, just so nobody would forget what happened to them.

But the NCAA said the game would not count as a win because it was canceled, not forfeited. There is no asterisk. “I guess it’s just one of those folklore things that goes down,” Doeren said.

NC State went into 2022 with its highest expectations in years, opening the preseason poll at No. 13. But six games into the season, starting quarterback Devin Leary sustained a season-ending injury and NC State finished 8-5.

Opening this season 4-3 was not exactly what many expected, either, after NC State retooled its offense — bringing in Armstrong from Virginia and Robert Anae as offensive coordinator. The fan base expressed its concerns loudly, particularly after watching Duke and North Carolina get off to much better starts.

Pennix remembers Doeren told the team, “One loss doesn’t define you, it’s how you respond.”

NC State did that in an impressive 24-17 win over Clemson. But after a win over Miami, quarterback MJ Morris asked Doeren for a meeting. Morris had replaced Armstrong as the starter and went 3-1 — helping spur the turnaround. But he had played in four games and decided he did not want to burn his redshirt, so he asked to sit out the rest of the season. Morris has since announced he plans to transfer to Maryland. Doeren hasn’t gone into detail about what happened.

So NC State turned back to Armstrong. Armstrong said after he was benched, he looked inward and also talked to friends, family and the team’s sports psychologist about turning around his state of mind.

“I was like, ‘You know what, when I go back out there, I’m not going to really care what happens, I’m just going to go out there and play,'” Armstrong said. “I know, I’m what I’m capable of. Don’t think, just go have some fun out there, and it just kind of transpired that way. But it was a lot of hard work from the entire team. It wasn’t just me.”

What Armstrong’s coaches stressed was simple — avoid turning the ball over.

In his final three starts, Armstrong had zero interceptions (he had six in his first five) and had a hand in nine total touchdowns. He posted his three highest quarterback ratings against FBS opponents of the season, and in a dominant performance against rival North Carolina, Armstrong threw for 334 yards and three scores, completing 71% of his passes.

He will lead the offense one last time Thursday night with one final chance to leave his stamp on the program.

“To hit that benchmark for this group that’s done so well overcoming and finishing, and then what that does for next year’s team would be meaningful,” Doeren said.

Pennix put it this way: “This is another chance to make a statement. We’re here to make history.”

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