Vorel: For Notre Dame and N.C. State, everything has changed
A year ago, I got a voicemail from an old cartoon sea captain.
At least, that’s what he sounded like. The caller — who, for the purpose of this column, shall remain nameless — identified himself as a lifelong N.C. State football fan from Raleigh, N.C. His voice was weathered and gravelly, as if he’d been gargling a gallon of cement and it hardened in his esophagus.
He whispered, like an informant, like Deep Throat shrouded in the darkness of a Washington, D.C. parking garage.
This is what he said.
“We’re trying to get rid of our football coach here, so the Irish have to win and have to win decisively. You cannot let this game be close, and you certainly can’t let N.C. State win. That would postpone our efforts to get rid of a coach who’s a nice guy, but he’s in over his head.
“So please pass that along. Pass that inspiration on to Notre Dame. We’re pulling for them, too. Thanks.”
Then, a rumble. A click. A dial tone.
That “nice guy,” by the way, was fourth-year N.C. State head coach Dave Doeren, who entered the 2016 Notre Dame game with a 21-21 record in his three and a half seasons on the job. Last week, following a 6-1 start, he was featured on the midseason watch list for the Dodd Trophy, which is awarded to the coach of the year in college football.
On Oct. 10, USA Today reported that Doeren and N.C. State officials are negotiating a significant contract extension.
Would any of this have happened if Notre Dame simply granted our caller’s request?
Instead, the Irish attempted 26 passes in a merciless monsoon last October, ran for just 59 yards and 1.6 yards per carry, fumbled four times and dropped a 10-3 decision. The light posts looming over Carter-Finley Stadium visibly swayed throughout the game, looking as stable as Notre Dame’s rapidly disintegrating program.
“It was a poorly designed game plan by me,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly admitted this week. “There was nothing there that we really wanted to go back and look at.”
In retrospect, was the 2016 N.C. State loss a microcosm of Notre Dame’s 4-8 season?
“Yeah, when it rains, it pours,” Kelly deadpanned on Tuesday.
Back then, if you had said that Notre Dame and N.C. State would meet in 2017 with legitimate playoff hopes and two total losses between them, I would have assumed some of that rain water seeped into your skull.
What a difference a year makes — for N.C. State, for Notre Dame … and (I’m assuming) for our caller.
But let’s start with the Wolfpack. A year ago, N.C. State — which finished 7-6 and defeated Vanderbilt in the Camping World Independence Bowl — averaged 27 points per game, which ranked 75th nationally. Through seven games this season, that number is up to 35.4 points per game (31st), a reflection of the sudden burst of balance that spurred six consecutive wins.
Specifically, No. 14 N.C. State (6-1) ranks 24th nationally in passing offense (290 yards per game), and quarterback Ryan Finley is 24th in passing efficiency. Skill players Jaylen Samuels and Nyheim Hines are dynamic, versatile threats.
A lot has changed, but where it counts, something hasn’t. A year after finishing eighth nationally in rushing defense (108.6 yards per game), Doeren’s team currently ranks sixth in that category (91.3 yards per game).
Maybe that’s why Notre Dame couldn’t run in the rain.
But will the Irish run on Saturday?
They’ll try to. We know that. Since Notre Dame was limited to 55 rushing yards and 1.5 yards per carry in a 20-19 loss to Georgia on Sept. 9, the Irish offensive line has paved the way for 349.6 rushing yards per game and 7.5 yards per carry. Eighth-year Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s team has won those five games by an average of 28.4 points.
No. 9 Notre Dame (6-1) ranks sixth nationally in rushing, behind four option offenses (Navy, Georgia Tech, Army and Air Force) and Arizona.
“The mentality of our football team has been crafted over the year of this physicality and running the football,” Kelly said. “Once you know who you are, you take great pride in that.”
The Irish have a new identity, and a fresh outlook. They aren’t the only ones.
“Both of us went through tough seasons a year ago at certain times and have rebounded well as a staff and as a team,” Doeren said. “So I think you’ve got two focused teams that fight hard, and I’m looking forward to being a part of that kind of game.”
I’m looking forward to watching it … and maybe, just maybe, hearing from an old friend.