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    Tony Haynes: Wolfpack Staying Humble
     
     

    BY TONY HAYNES

     

    Raleigh, N.C. Since they don’t live in a vacuum, NC State’s football players found it impossible to completely tune out the scrutiny that was coming their way following a 1-5 start. Now, all of sudden, criticism has given way to praise in the wake of impressive victories over East Carolina and Virginia.

     

    Sure, criticism can eat away at the human spirit. But the satisfaction that often accompanies adulation can be just as lethal.

     

    Following Saturday night’s 29-24 victory over the nationally ranked Cavaliers, the Wolfpack (3-5, 1-3) had every reason to celebrate a job well done in the locker room. By Sunday, however, it was business as usual when the Pack gathered for its first team meeting of a new work week. With a trip to Miami (5-3, 2-2) on the horizon, coach Tom O’Brien is making sure his improving team isn’t falling into the dangerous trap of thinking it has suddenly emerged as a college football juggernaut.

     

    “We’ve got to get better and that’s still the bottom line,” O’Brien said sternly on Monday. “We’re not a championship football team by any stretch of the imagination. We’ve won two games and the fight is on to win that third game now.”

     

    There was certainly a fighting spirit to NC State’s play the last two weeks, a hunger and determination  that remained relentless for four quarters in both games. Now the trick is to maintain that hunger after experiencing some success.

     

    “As we talked about last week and we’re going to reiterate it again, you can’t listen to what everybody says about you,” O’Brien said. “George Welsh used to say it’s like poison, if you swallow it, it’s going to kill you. You don’t all of a sudden become world beaters in two weeks. The only thing they have to listen to is what their coaches say to them.”

     

    O’Brien is often quick to quote his longtime boss at Virginia, and why shouldn’t he? Welsh is, after all, second only to Florida State’s Bobby Bowden in career ACC wins.

     

    But it would be difficult for even O’Brien to quantify just how far NC State has come since the first half of the opening game when it fell behind Central Florida 25-3.

     

    The popular question the last few days has been in what areas has NC State improved the most?’ Actually, the better question is in what areas has the Pack not improved?’

     

    The checklist is quite long. On defense, the Wolfpack is tackling better, rushing the passer better and covering receivers better. The same applies on the offensive side of the ball, where pass protection and run blocking have improved up front, allowing more time for quarterback Daniel Evans to throw the ball and giving more room for tailback Jamelle Eugene to run. Over his last two games, Evans has averaged 341 yards passing with six touchdowns, while connecting on 61 percent of his throws. Eugene has rushed for better than 100 yards in two of NC State’s last three games, and has averaged 4.7 yards per carry the last three weeks.

     

    Receiver Donald Bowens has caught 16 balls the last two games, including 11 for 202 yards against Virginia.

     

    On defense, the Wolfpack has 12 sacks and three interceptions the last two weeks. Over the first six games, the Pack had tallied just eight sacks and only two picks.

     

    Eugene credits a renewed sense of confidence in O’Brien and his first-year staff.

     

    “We always believed the coaches were trying to do the right thing, but I don’t know if everybody bought into it,” Eugene said. “The coaches always trusted us and believed in us, now we feel like we’re returning that trust and belief and it’s paying off.”

     

    After posting the nation’s worst turnover margin (-17) in the first half of the season, O’Brien set of goal of finishing on the plus side in the second half. Two games into the new season,’ the Wolfpack is plus-1.

     

    “We’ve created opportunities on defense for the offense and taken advantage of it,” O’Brien said. “And we haven’t lost scoring opportunities as many times as we did in the first half of the year by turning the ball over.”

     

    NC State has indeed taken advantage of four turnovers the last two weeks, scoring two touchdowns and two field goals after those miscues by its opponents.

     

    The major personnel changes have occurred in the secondary. By switching DaJaun Morgan from strong safety to free safety the last two weeks and inserting Javon Walker into the strong safety slot, defensive coordinator Mike Archer has added more speed and better tackling ability at the safety positions.

     

    Jeremy Gray has replaced Jimmie Sutton at field corner, with DeAndre Morgan manning the boundary corner spot.

     

    The current combination of players has given the Wolfpack better coordination and improved run support from of its zone coverages.

     

    “We kept searching through the first six games for the guys that could do the best job of executing the schemes that we wanted to play,” O’Brien said. “In the off week we spent a lot of time with the secondary tackling and supporting the run. People were killing us with perimeter blocks and running. Jeremy is the guy that’s playing the boundary and he’s got to run support like they’ve never done before. He’s done the best job of any corner we’ve had.”

     

    The offensive line is still a work in progress, even after it put together perhaps its best performance of the year against All-America defensive end Chris Long and Virginia on Saturday. After starting the first eight games at right tackle, Mears Green is listed at right guard this week with Jeraill McCuller taking over at right tackle.

     

    “We’re still trying to find the right combinations,” O’Brien said.

     

    Not only is NC State starting to win games and force turnovers, its overall luck in the injury department seems to be improving as well. The Wolfpack did not come out of the Virginia game with any new additions to the injury report. Right guard Curtis Crouch, who sat out Saturday’s contest with an ankle sprain, is listed as probable this week. An ankle sprain also prevented John Dunlap from dressing for the game against the Cavaliers. As of Monday, the senior receiver was listed as questionable for Miami.

     

    To The Victors Go The Spoils: Three NC State players have been honored by the Atlantic Coast Conference for their effort in the victory over Virginia. Bowens shares ACC Offensive Back of the Week honors with Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan. For his work in helping to neutralize Chris Long, freshman offensive tackle Jake Vermiglio was recognized as the Rookie of the Week. DaJuan Morgan, who had 13 tackles, an interception and two pass breakups against the Cavaliers, is the league’s Defensive Back of the Week.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     


     

     

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