The Dave Doeren-era at North Carolina State University got started with a bang Saturday in Raleigh against Louisiana Tech behind athletic quarterback Brandon Mitchell.
Then, just as soon as it started, the fast start ended. Why? Because Mitchell, the transfer from the University of Arkansas, left the game with a foot injury and did not return. He was later diagnosed with a broken fifth metatarsal in his left foot and had surgery to fix it. He will be out four to six weeks.
Enter Pete Thomas, and enter an entirely different offense — one that was nowhere near as explosive as the one Mitchell orchestrated through the first two drives of the afternoon.
In two full drives, Mitchell led the Wolfpack to two touchdowns and a quick 14-0 lead in what looked like it would quickly become a blowout with Mitchell at the controls. He completed all three of his attempted passes for 93 yards while rushing for 19 yards on five carries.
On the second drive of his Wolfpack career, he threaded the needle between two Louisiana Tech defenders to find Rashard Smith over the middle for a 56-yard completion down to the Louisiana Tech 2-yard line. The drive was finished off by a Matt Dayes 2-yard touchdown run a play later.
Following the third drive, the one in which Mitchell left the field for the locker room with the injury, the Wolfpack offense looked nothing like the high-powered one that came out of the tunnel to start the game.
Thomas finished the afternoon going 15 of 27 passing for 212 yards and an interception. He was spelled by Brad Shirreffs from time to time in a “Wildcat” package, which was effective at points, but nowhere near as effective as when Mitchell was under center.
It begs the question: Is Doeren already falling under the same spell his predecessor Tom O’Brien fell into?
With O’Brien at the helm of the Wolfpack, Russell Wilson shined in his pro-style offense. The Wolfpack never reached the 10-win plateau in the six years O’Brien was in control, but the Wolfpack beat rival University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill each of his first five years in Raleigh. Save a Giovani Bernard punt return late in the fourth quarter of the game between the two in 2012 and O’Brien would have been perfect against the Tar Heels in his six years with the Wolfpack.
The thing that kept O’Brien’s Wolfpack from going above and beyond the single digit win totals was not the play on the field, but the lack of players on the field from week to week.
Wilson got injured at inopportune times, including N.C. State’s first bowl game under O’Brien in 2008 — a 29-23 loss to Rutgers University. Multiple injuries to runnings backs and offensive linemen kept the Wolfpack off balance through the middle years of O’Brien’s tenure.
Once the offense found a way to stay healthy, the defense started taking hits. Most notably, linebacker Nate Irving missed an entire season after a freak car accident he was lucky to walk away from in the first place. Without Irving at the heart of the defense, the Wolfpack weren’t the same and allowed points in boatloads.
In his final year in 2012, the injury bug went back to the offense, specifically the offensive line that was protecting now-Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Mike Glennon. In 10 games, N.C. State started six different offensive line combinations. That’s not exactly the chemistry a coach is looking for when it comes to protecting the quarterback.
The Daily Progress, the local newspaper in Charlottesville, Va. where O’Brien is now employed as a coach on Mike London’s staff with the University of Virginia Cavaliers, talked with O’Brien about his years with the Wolfpack in January. The coach touted his own coaching job considering the injuries he ran into throughout his tenure.
“If you look at the injuries on defense a year ago (in 2011) and what we went through on offense this year (in 2012), and we still win seven games … that was a heck of a coaching job,” O’Brien said.
Winning 24 games in his final three seasons with the Wolfpack was not enough to keep his job. In large part, the variables effecting the success were not his fault, yet athletic director Debbie Yow elected to fire O’Brien the day after beating Boston College, his previous employer, to close out the 2012 season with the Wolfpack on the way to a bowl game.
Even O’Brien’s predecessor, Chuck Amato, couldn’t quite get everything right at the same time. That was not as much due to injuries, though.
Under the direction of now-San Diego Chargers quarterbacks Philip Rivers, the offense rolled with consistency, but the defense couldn’t stop anyone with anything resembling consistency, and the Wolfpack couldn’t get much of anything going in terms of soaring records they could’ve had.
After Rivers graduated, the defense, led by future first-overall pick Mario Williams, stepped up in big ways. The problem was the offense was led by a cast of characters centered around Marcus Stone and later Daniel Evans, neither of whom could put up numbers Rivers could. Soon enough, it was the end of Amato in favor of O’Brien.
After six years of single-digit wins, fans got tired and wanted more of the results O’Brien found with Matt Ryan at Boston College, but they weren’t coming thanks to many untimely injuries. Yow responded.
Just one game into the Doeren-era, the new Wolfpack coach could already be getting a glimpse of what life was like for O’Brien. Sure, it was a 40-14 win against Louisiana Tech. Next time out, N.C. State takes on the University of Richmond. The following week, the Wolfpack are on a bye before going on national television Thursday Sept. 19 against Tajh Boyd and the uberly high-octane Clemson University offense.
By no means am I saying Mitchell would allow the Wolfpack to surely beat the Tigers, but he gives them a better chance than Thomas.
If Mitchell is out for the entire six weeks, other opponents on N.C. State’s schedule are Central Michigan University, Wake Forest University and Syracuse University — all seemingly very winnable games even without Mitchell.
But as N.C. State has been prone to do, that one game, and potential dismantling at home on TV, against Clemson could carry over to the following week and turn one loss into two just four games into the season.
The most recent occasion of this happening came just last year in that aforementioned North Carolina game. The loss to the Tar Heels turned into two when the Wolfpack were embarrassed on homecoming weekend in Raleigh by a final of 33-6 at the hands of Virginia. That could be pointed at as the final nail in the coffin for O’Brien even though he led the Wolfpack to a second half-comeback less than a month before against No. 3 Florida State University on national TV.
Get dismantled by Clemson Sept. 19 and the rest of the season could become a moot point. Welcome to Raleigh, Dave Doeren. Your first year could be looked at as a waste already because of one injury to a quarterback you’ll only have for the 2013 season. That’s just the harsh truth.