After NC State lost 24-3 at Duke in early October, Wolfpack graduate linebacker Payton Wilson sat in the visiting media room and had an initial diagnosis of the red and white’s then-one-game over .500 record: get tougher.
“I mean everybody on this team has got to get with the program,” Wilson said in Durham. “We’ve got to come out here and we’ve got to play, like, as hard as you can possibly play every single snap because we don’t know when that last snap is.”
“We’ve just got to get back in the lab. Honestly, we don’t need to get better. We need to get tougher,” Wilson continued. “This whole team needs to get tougher, from offense, defense, special teams.”
The Wolfpack, which sat at 4-3 at the time of its “embarrassing” loss, responded in a way that was a dream for coach Dave Doeren — a five-game winning streak to close the season.
NC State beat Clemson and Miami out of its idle week before it hit the road and won at Wake Forest and Virginia Tech. The Wolfpack capped the regular season rise through the ACC standings with a commanding 39-20 win over North Carolina on Saturday night at Carter-Finley Stadium.
The Wolfpack’s mid-season turnaround caught the eyes of everyone around the country, and led to a No. 22 ranking in the most recent College Football Playoff top 25.
But how did the Wolfpack go from a sputtering offense that could not move the ball, which led to a three-score loss to the Blue Devils’ backup quarterback to one of the best performing teams in the ACC down the stretch? It had a complete buy-in from its coaches and players.
“I think it’s been one heck of a five-week window,” Doeren said Saturday night after his third straight win over the Tar Heels. “Super proud of our players and our coaches. … Everything I asked these kids to do, they did. Control the clock, win the turnover margin, be the most physical team in the stadium. No matter what, keep playing.”
The bye week was the team’s turning point.
Doeren, the Wolfpack’s 11th-year coach, sat down and self-scouted the team during its lone week off. He looked at everything to see where the Pack could improve itself to turn its season around.
What he came up with was simple, yet effective. It began with huddling on offense since he thought that unit was “disconnected.” He also asked the entire offensive staff to look at what did not work — and to get rid of it — while he wanted those coaches to build off what did work.
That led to getting the ball in freshman wide receiver Kevin Concepcion’s hands as often as possible. That led to 27 receptions for 357 with six receiving TDs, and 33 carries for 258 rushing yards over the five-game stretch.
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Defensively, Doeren wanted to limit explosive plays for touchdowns — which burned the Pack at Duke since the Blue Devils scored two of their three touchdowns on plays that were longer than 50 yards.
Since that deflating loss at Duke, NC State has not given up a touchdown longer than 50 yards and only two scores have been for longer than 40 yards — both at Virginia Tech after the Pack built a 21-point lead.
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Doeren also wanted the team to not “beat itself.” That meant limiting penalties and turnovers, both areas of the game that led to the Wolfpack’s three losses this fall. NC State reduced its turnover output with six in the five games, including two games without one, while it reduced its pre-snap penalties.
Graduate quarterback Brennan Armstrong, who threw six interceptions in his first five starts of the fall, did not throw any in the final three games after he was reinserted into the lineup after sophomore signal-caller MJ Morris decided to redshirt.
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“As a coach, I had to really think hard about what we needed to do,” Doeren said. “We put a plan in place, and came up with some really firm things that I wanted to see happen in all three phases of the game. You’ve seen them, and you’ve seen what happened.”
While those three keys to the turnaround helped, Wilson thought there was a specific thing that the team rallied around over its final trio of contests: Armstrong.
“I think it’s just everybody buying in, and I think a big part of that is Brennan coming back and playing the way he did,” Wilson said. “You have a quarterback that runs like that, throws like that — he’s out there with damn near a broken rib playing ball for 60 minutes against our rival, putting up 39 points tonight.”
“Shoutout Brennan Armstrong and the toughness, the maturity and the physical aspect that he brings to this team,” Wilson continued. “I think that’s one of the main reasons that we grew as a team, got tougher and we play the way we do.”
Armstrong put up his best day in a Wolfpack uniform in his last contest at Carter-Finley Stadium with a 22-for-31 day for 334 yards and a trio of touchdowns — and he did it putting his toughness on full display.
The Shelby, Ohio, native said he reaggravated a rib injury that he originally suffered in 2021 at Virginia. He did not throw a pass in practice this past week, but Armstrong was not going to be kept off the field for his final senior night of his career. He was determined to play, and he rose to the occasion.
“I feel that’s what it takes, right?” Armstrong said. “That’s what it takes — toughness. I try to bring that, the guys I think rally around it, and you guys see the results with our offense and the team. That’s who I’ve been for a long time and I just try to push that on the team.”
Armstrong’s final three starts of the regular season were near perfect. He finished with a 70% completion rate with 650 passing yards and six touchdowns through the air as the Pack strung together a trio of dominant victories. He also rushed 45 times for 207 yards and three scores on the ground in that stretch.
As NC State rallied around its tough quarterback, it became closer as a team, which has become apparent week after week. The Wolfpack had opportunities to win all three games it lost this season, including a crucial 13-10 loss to Louisville in late-September, but the squad did not resemble that team in the five-game winning streak.
Doeren, NC State’s all-time winningest coach, has one last goal in mind for the 2023 campaign: a 10-win season. The Pack is one victory away from that, and he said he could not think of any other team to try to do it with.
“I think the brotherhood of this team is special, it’s unique,” Doeren said. “I would love to win 10 with them, to be that team that does that because they deserve to have that legacy item.”
If the Wolfpack wins its bowl game, it would be just the second team in NC State’s 118 seasons as a program to have double digit wins — the 2002 team won 11 games.
But six weeks ago, that seemed like it would be out of reach. The Pack needed to win out to have a shot at that, and it appeared that the team had too much to fix. ESPN’s Football Power Index gave NC State a 0.4% chance of winning its last five games.
Well look at the Wolfpack now. Doeren was up for the challenge and the red and white delivered in the home stretch of the season.
“I think as a leader I was challenged,” Doeren said. “I was put in a tough spot, and if you’ve learned anything about me and my time here, I love being challenged. I like fighting when people are doubting me, and there was a lot of doubt. It was one of those things where you had to fight for your players, fight for yourself and we did that very well.”