Nov. 8, 2013
Thursday Football Notebook
Game 9: NC State Wolfpack vs. Duke Blue Devils
November 9, 2013 4:00 p.m.
Durham, N.C. Wallace Wade Stadium (33,941)
TV: ESPNU | Radio: Wolfpack Sports Network | Live Stats
Game Notes | NC State Twitter | Ask the Analyst
RALEIGH, N.C. - So near, and yet so far away.
That familiar phrase probably best describes the football rivalry that once was between NC State and Duke. Although their campuses are separated by a mere 25 miles and they reside in the same conference, many of the classic games that have been played between the Wolfpack and Blue Devils now seem like ancient history.
"We've played East Carolina more times than we've played Duke since I've been here," joked NC State receiver Rashard Smith, who is just one of eight fifth-year players who were around the last time the Wolfpack met the Blue Devils in 2009.
On Saturday, it will be like `old times' when Duke and State square off at Wallace Wade Stadium, a venue that the Pack hasn't visited since 2008. Kick-off will be at 4 p.m., the game will be televised on ESPNU.
"It's my first time playing Duke," said State defensive end Art Norman. "Besides the fifth-year seniors, this is everybody's first year playing them. We're excited."
There were years in the past when a late-season game against Duke provided a respite from an otherwise challenging ACC schedule.
This, however, is not one of those years.
Riding high following a 13-10 victory at then-No. 16 Virginia Tech two weeks ago, coach David Cutcliffe's Blue Devils are hot with a four-game winning streak. After ending a 17-year postseason drought last year, Duke is now bowl eligible in back-to-back seasons for the first time in school history. The victory over the Hokies was the Blue Devils' first triumph over a nationally ranked team since 1994.
"We've got a big game with a team in Duke that's playing smart and not beating themselves," said NC State head coach Dave Doeren. "They have tremendous playmakers in the return game and at wide receiver, and both quarterbacks that they've played are extremely athletic. You can see that they're just a well-coached team that doesn't beat themselves."
The quarterback combo of Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette has worked in perfect tandem, with both possessing the ability to make plays throwing and running. Boone is 6-0 as a starter in his career, while Connette has been the finisher, having thrown game-winning touchdown passes in the fourth quarter of wins over Memphis and Virginia.
The top target for both signal callers is shifty receiver-return man Jamison Crowder, who ranks among the top-five in the ACC in receptions, receiving yards, all-purpose yards, and punt return yardage.
"They have the best returner in our conference," Doeren said. "Their quarterbacks are very efficient in the passing game. What we have to do is run our system and execute."
As to who will actually be asked to orchestrate that execution from the quarterback position is anyone's guess. Since coming back from a broken foot, Brandon Mitchell has struggled to find a rhythm in the passing game. After throwing two interceptions in the second half of last week's game against North Carolina, Mitchell was pulled in favor of Pete Thomas, who had been the starter in Mitchell's absence.
"We've got to keep working those two guys," Doeren said. "They've both made mistakes and plays throughout the season. The big thing we talk with them about is just managing the game. It's that's critical play when things breakdown; if you can't make a play, don't force a play. Both of these guys have learned a lot in their starts this year. We've got four games to put it together and we'll see how it goes."
Regardless of who starts on Saturday, there's every reason to believe that Doeren could play both quarterbacks against the Blue Devils, unless one or the other gets off to a hot start. Smith has faith in both signal callers.
"It's really doesn't matter," he said. "We've played with both guys through the entire season, so having both of those guys back there in a leadership role is a plus. I'm sure every receiver, offensive lineman, running back and every coach is comfortable with either guy they put back there."
Given the fact that Duke is averaging nearly 39 points at Wallace Wade Stadium over the last two years, it would behoove the Pack to score more touchdowns than field goals this week. Meaning NC State must do a better job of executing when the field shrinks.
With just 10 touchdowns in 25 trips to the red zone this season, the Wolfpack has relied too heavily on the reliable right leg of placekicker Niklas Sade to put points on the board. Sade leads the ACC in field goals per game, a statistic that reflects both his accuracy and his team's difficulties inside the 20-yard line.
"It's frustrating because we leave so many plays and points that we should make out there on the field," Smith said. "It's games like the UNC game where we lost by eight points where we were in the red zone four times and kicked three field goals. We're not making enough plays to win the games that we are in."
The dynamic of this particular NC State - Duke game may be different from some of the previous meetings between the two schools simply because Cutcliffe has managed to sign more kids from North Carolina than many of his predecessors in Durham. The 2013 Blue Devils feature 28 players from the home state, including captains Boone, cornerback Ross Cockrell and defensive end Justin Foxx.
"When we came (2008) I counted eight guys from the state of North Carolina on scholarship," said Cutcliffe. "Now we're approaching 30, and a lot of our guys play and play a lot. I think they understand the importance of this game."
There were times in the past when coaches from NC State and Duke would rarely cross paths when they were recruiting high school players from North Carolina, but those days are apparently long gone.
In those years when they were playing each other every season, games between NC State and Duke seemed to produce plenty of offensive fireworks on a regular basis.
When Steve Spurrier was head coach at Duke from 1987-89 and Dick Sheridan was at State, the games often left fans breathless. The Pack's 47-45 victory in 1987, was followed by a 43-43 tie the next year. In 1989, Wolfpack quarterback Shane Montgomery set school records that still stands today when he threw for 535 yards on 73 attempts in a 35-26 loss to the Blue Devils.
Those games and many others leave many longtime fans of both schools longing for those days when the two Triangle area neighbors played each other every fall.
"Personally I really enjoy these kinds of games and I think the players do to," Doeren said.
The Wolfpack Sports Network begins its pregame coverage Saturday with the Mathews Motors Countdown to Kickoff at 2 p.m. In the second hour of the pregame show, network analyst Johnny Evans fields your questions on Farm Bureau's Ask the Analyst. Fans can Tweet Johnny a question @packradio or send by email here.