Thursday, January 18, 2007

No, This Seven-Game Losing Streak Isn't Slowly Crushing My Soul, Why Do You Ask? (pts. II & III)

I didn't mean for a month to pass between part one and the last two installments, so here they are together in one huge post. It's partacular!

The Middle Third: Beer Me

By the time NC State had finished its comeback win over Florida State, Chuck Amato was so overwhelmed that when he was asked about his quarterback, he could only respond with an awkward, "" It's hard to blame him for a loss of words. A few weeks earlier, the team looked done; now, back on the right side of .500, the team had restored some potential to its season.

We were perched atop the division, two of our toughest competitors dispatched and in the rearview. Also encouraging was the way the offense looked with Daniel Evans in control. We'd yet to break that cursed 24 point barrier, but it seemed just a matter of time--I said as much in this space.

My thoughts at the time sounded something like this:

With this improved offense, hey, who knows? We could win the division. Not gonna happen, but at least the notion feels less absurd. Or we could go on a devastating losing streak instead. Ooh, that'd show us. Nah. That's not too likely, either.

October 14th: the first time and the last time I head back to the tailgate before the second quarter is over. Sam Swank kicks a field goal to narrow State's lead, the Deacons kickoff and NC State gets the ball back with less than two minutes left. I leave my seat, feeling good about taking the lead into halftime.

But as I'm rounding the west stands and nearing the south end zone, I hear a gasp followed by a groan followed by silence. Crap, what was that? And--oh god--are those cheers coming from the Wake section? Panicking, I try to quell my fears by thinking of an innocuous event that can inspire the gasp/groan reaction. I can't think of anything. Once I had a clear view of the scoreboard, I saw: Wake Forest 15, NC State 14. A safety? Later I'd find out that Andre Brown had fumbled and the ball ended up rolling like fifteen yards backward. But standing there in front of the Murphy Center, I was baffled. Guess I better stay for the rest of the half, I thought.

I watched in horror as Riley Skinner avoided a sack near midfield and completed a long pass to Nate Morton. Morton, who caught the ball around the 15 or so, cut back to the middle of the field and scored easily. Instead of taking a lead to the break, we've gifted them nine points in two minutes.

This one should have been ours, but we couldn't make the game-deciding plays we needed, and the Deacs were opportunistic. Anthony Hill dropped passes in key situations. John Deraney missed a field goal. We had to settle for three points after a long fourth-quarter drive. We missed the game-tying two-point conversion attempt. Evans threw an interception on a potential game-winning last-minute drive. It goes on.

How would we respond in College Park the next week? Not well.

The Maryland game was my rageahol game. Every year, there is one Wolfpack performance that, beyond all others, is pathetic, disorganized, and frustrating. When they happen, they make me re-evaluate why I am a sports fan. The only thing running through my head is SMASH SMASH SMASH. How my television controller survives these moments I'll never know.

There was this:

When we got the ball back with 2:00 left in the first half, we couldn't decide if we wanted to try to score or not. Evans was sacked on first down, then we ran the ball twice and managed to move the sticks. After Baker's third down run (and conversion), he fumbled the ball but was officially ruled down. Amato, looking to get some points before the half, began to motion for a timeout, only to have a coach run up to him and point out that we didn't want the TO because we didn't want to give the officials time to review the last play. You'd think that, what with Amato being right there on the field watching the play, seeing that the officials were not sure about the play and huddled before calling Baker down, he'd recognize that this probably wouldn't be the best time to stop play.

There was this:

When Maryland got the ball back after Evans' fourth-quarter INT (about 6:00 left), it took them three plays to get into a 1st-and-goal situation. They had 1st-and-goal with 4:17 on the clock. If we use our three timeouts on the next three plays, we probably have 3:45 instead of the 1:55 we ended up with. When you don't use your timeouts in this situation, still down two scores, you are definitely putting your team in a position where it must get the onside kick to win. That is, you don't have time to score, kick it deep, play defense and use your timeouts. Really, whether we used the timeouts there or not, we were going to need the onside kick. So Maryland getting the ball back doesn't even factor into your strategy. If they do get it back, you lose. You have to operate as though this is Maryland's last possession and use your timeouts where they can save the most time.

And, lest we forget, this:

The call to put Stone into the game was so perplexing, Steve Martin had to go down to Mike Hogewood for an explanation. Teams have so much film on you by this time of the season, Hogewood said, that you have to throw some wrinkles in there to give opponents something they haven't seen. So NC State decided to call an option play and have Stone run it. Stone saw the defensive end to his right coming straight at him, which didn't give him the chance to run the option with Brown to that side, as I assume was intended (this assessment based on re-watching the play). Instead, he had to give it to Baker quickly. Maryland was so stunned by this wrinkle, they completely blew it up.

If Trestman wants to give Maryland some different looks, that's great. But why, on a 3rd-and-6, do you decide that this is the appropriate time to put Marcus Stone into the game, and not only that, but to call a running play? Why not find a better situation for that particular play? We ran the ball effectively all day, and that gave us plenty of mid-range second down situations which would be much better suited for Stone's option. Besides, Evans had already hit several passes on the drive--those completions were what had made it successful. We got away from what had worked up to that point.

We kinda pay these guys a lot of money for their situational judgment.

See, now I'm typing angry.

Next stop on the trail of tears: Charlottesville, for a game against Virginia that I avoided (but DVRed just in case...) in protest. That ended up a smart decision. The Cavaliers held NC State scoreless for three quarters before the Pack finally broke through to tie the score at seven. Virginia re-took the lead with an 80-yard touchdown drive on their ensuing possession, the Pack threw an INT on theirs, and the Cavs held on.

The Final Third: Delicious bourbon. Brownest of the brown liquors. What's that? You want me to drink you? But I'm in the middle of a football game!

I wish I did, really I do. Problem is, I'm skinny. So I don't take well to cold weather. I layer up so much that I end up having my range of motion restricted like Ralphie's little brother in A Christmas Story (also, like Ralphie's father, I often weave a tapestry of obscenities that hangs in the air over Carter-Finley stadium for days); we even have a space heater at the tailgate. It is no use. A losing battle--like trying to defend Calvin Johnson.

Sitting at 3-5 and coming off three tough, close losses in a row, we were well past the measured concern phase and on into crisis mode. With a road trip to Clemson looming, a loss to the Jackets here would almost certainly end whatever bowl hopes we had left.

Two first-quarter Calvin Johnson TDs later, it's looking like things are about to get ugly. The Wolfpack managed to put a scoring drive together after the second Johnson touchdown, however, and Reggie Ball obliged our efforts on Tech's subsequent possession by giving us an example of the kind of disastrously poor judgment that he is famous for. Pat Lowery returns his mistake to the endzone, narrowing the score to 14-13.

We somehow managed to take the lead going into the fourth quarter, but that lasted less than six minutes. Once the lead was gone, I didn't think we'd ever get it back. That's what a losing streak will do to you. As I told Ramblin' Racket in our pre-game discussion:

We rarely put it all together for any extended period; the offense has been the biggest transgressor here. The team's most even performances came against the Seminoles and the Eagles, but those games proved merely flashes of potential. The real NC State team is not the one that played in those two games; the real NC State team shoots itself in the foot far too often to exhibit any consistent success. The real team is not clutch.

We went three-and-out after Tech reclaimed the lead, punted to the Jackets and watched them march down the field for another score. Which could not have been less surprising. It remained a one-possession game, but it might as well have been four possessions.

Off to Clemson, then, needing to do what I deemed impossible.

Halftime: Clemson 7, NC State 0

Hunh. Not bad. We were stuffed on 4th-and-goal else we'd be tied.

It occurred to me that Clemson looked nothing like the team that dismantled Georgia Tech. In fact, the Tigers would lose all the games they played after facing us. What happened? Did we... did we give them the Suck?

"I know what that is," he whispered, eyes like moons. "I've seen it before."

Slowly, the A's gathered 'round Kielty as he shook his head like a man with a terrible tale to tell. "It's the Suck from the Twins!" he proclaimed in a deathly voice. "It will make you hit into double plays, field like blind monkeys, turn any good bat into an ass bat..."

"Oh, my god," said Scuturo.

"Oh, my god," agreed Swisher.

"IT BURNS," repeated Thomas.

"How did it get on us?" breathed Jason Kendall.

"I don't know," said Kielty. "It must have infested the stadium when they were there. I mean, that was a lot of suck."

"Yeah," said Kendall. "There's no way all that suck could be contained in the visitor's clubhouse."

Oops, sorry about that.

End of 3rd Quarter: Clemson 14, NC State 14

You know what I like? Pleasant surprises. Those are good; we should totally have more of those.

Our losing streak had been more of an "oh great, tube socks" kind of surprise.

Willie Young's interception return (one of the few truly thrilling plays this season) came on the heels of a long Wolfpack touchdown drive. Two scores in fifty-four seconds. Tied! Alas, you know where we're going from here, and it ain't Lollipop Lane. No, the barrenous wasteland that is Loserville beckons. They get points in the last quarter, we squander opportunities and that's that. Lamart Barrett catches a would-be game-winning pass at the pylon and is just barely out of bounds.

We've been fortunate. While sometimes our frustration prevents us from fully appreciating the small things--and minor bowl bids are certainly that--a winning season is always rewarding on some level. We've had a good run since I became a serious fan in 1997: there'd been only one losing season in the intervening years. Until the Clemson Tigers sacked Daniel Evans to end the game.

I would watch plenty of bowl games in December. I watched East Carolina fall to USF in a bowl sponsored by a pizza company's website. I watched Troy stomp Rice in front of approximately 37 people. And I was jealous. I'd have given anything to watch the Wolfpack play in some lamely-sponsored, poorly-named bowl game. Shreveport? Sure! El Paso? Any time! Boise? Hey, I have limits.

With the season effectively over, there was but one thing left for the team to do: add in some insult!

You have killed me, you have killed me...

I went to the game against East Carolina played in Charlotte at the end of the 2004 season. I admit to being nervous beforehand because we had nothing to play for and we were expected to easily handle a bad Pirates team. Those are not comfortable circumstances. (Plus, I get nervous before games almost as a matter of routine. East Carolina, East[ern] Kentucky, East Mecklenburg, whatever.)

But then the game started. Not only were the Pirates small, they looked like they were running at half speed. I was shocked by how terrible they were. By the time we had a 17-7 lead in the second quarter, my concerns were forgotten--we'd go on to win 52-14, and that was despite four giveaways, including one that directly resulted in a Pirates score (they recovered a Jay Davis fumble in the end zone). There existed a rather significant gap between the two programs, is what I'm saying.

Fast forward to 2006. Could the Pirates possibly have made up the difference in two seasons? I had my doubts. I also had a this-can't-be-happening-surely-we-can't-lose-this-game-at-home feeling of desperation. It took a lot less game time than usual to realize I'd made a mistake by caring. The Wolfpack obviously didn't.

And when you think about it now, how else but ingloriously could the season have ended? With 10,000 fans from that nuisance of a directional school celebrating in our stadium? The previous six weeks--the previous week in particular--had led predictably to this point. No other outcome made sense.

"Y'arr. She blows."