East Carolina's thorough 42-28 victory over NC State on Saturday led to discussion on the immediate future, but also what the future holds.
NC State first-year coach Dave Doeren repeatedly brought up this past week that East Carolina's precision and execution are due in part to this being Pirates coach Ruffin McNeill's fourth season in Greenville, N.C. Both were on display as the game got out of hand during the third quarter to help the Pirates improve to 9-2 overall.
"Obviously we played until the end and I'm proud of that," Doeren said. "We didn't make enough plays defensively or offensively in the first half. When we came alive in the fourth quarter, it was a little too late."
ECU built a commanding 35-7 lead with 5:02 left in the third quarter behind the accuracy of junior quarterback Shane Carden and running ability of senior running back Vintavious Cooper. Carden went 23-of-30 passing for 255 yards and three touchdowns, and also ran for two scores. The Houston native was sacked just once and the offense didn't commit any turnovers.
"Carden played extremely well and took what we gave him underneath in the first half," Doeren said. "He reacted to some new coverage schemes that we gave him. In the second half, when we played much tighter coverages, they made some tremendous catches because of where the ball was thrown."
Cooper proved once again be a good complement to the passing game. The former junior college transfer rushed for 148 yards on 22 carries, and was over the century mark by halftime, helping the Pirates take a 21-7 lead going into the third quarter.
The execution of the Pirates' hurry-up attack came through in going 8 of 12 on third-down conversions, plus succeeding on a fourth-down trie. The Pirates went 5 for 5 on scoring touchdowns in the red zone.
"They hit us for a lot of underneath throws," Doeren said. "In the second half, we got them into some third-down situations, and they did a nice job of checking into some runs on third and medium [yards] when we were in blitzes. We gave them some different looks and they just back-shouldered and caught some balls."
NC State also fell to 0-4 against in-state Division I opponents this season, with previous losses against Wake Forest, North Carolina and Duke. The frustration of falling to 3-8 overall was evident following the game, but Doeren thanked the 49,106 fans that came (though a portion was in purple).
"It's been a tough year for them and I want them to know to stick in with us," Doeren said. "The guys will keep fighting and have a heck of an offseason and great recruiting class. We are going to develop this program into something they will be very proud of.
"It's disappointing to lose a home game against an in-state rival. The thing I told the guys in the locker room was that the way they finished the game was something I was proud of."
Conversely, East Carolina defeated both North Carolina and NC State this season, and play Marshall (7-3 overall, 5-1 CUSA) next week in a Conference USA East Division battle next Saturday.
"That's a pretty good season," McNeill said. "I was proud of our guys and the way they prepared. They had a vision and I appreciate the way they are approaching their vision. I like the way we prepared and they understand that."
NC State competed until the end - scoring two touchdowns in the final 51 seconds. Fifth-year senior quarterback Brandon Mitchell threw three of his four touchdowns in the fourth quarter, with two of them going to freshman wide receiver Jumichael Ramos, who has become a building block for the future. Mitchell went 28-of-44 for 312 yards and four scores, and added 10 carries for 30 yards on the ground in his best statistical game of the season. Mitchell also avoided having any turnovers.
Mitchell also connected on a 30-yard touchdown pass to fifth-year senior Rashard Smith, who had 104 yards on seven catches, including his score.
"[Offensive coordinator] Coach [Matt] Canada and Coach Doeren did a great job of watching film on ECU and breaking down what they like to do on defense," Mitchell said. "We had a great game plan. We got two running backs back there in Matt Dayes and Shadrach Thornton, you get a lot of one-on-one coverage. We have great young receivers."
Doeren has been impressed with how the players have stayed together during the seven-game losing streak. NCSU's last win was 48-14 against Central Michigan on Sept. 28.
"We are a very strong team from a chemistry standpoint," Doeren said. "We've spent a ton of time talking about the values of our program. I think every player and coach to a man has grown a lot this year. Our guys love each other and we care a lot about our players. We push them hard and they practice hard. That isn't going to stop."
Seniors such as Mitchell, Smith and the 13 others will help set the tone next week against Maryland at Carter-Finley Stadium.
"It's Senior Day coming up next week and we have some tremendous seniors that deserve the same thing they [Wolfpack fans] gave them today," Doeren said. "Seeing all the red and Wolfpack fans as we pulled up on the buses and the Walk of Champions, and we appreciate it
"I want to go out this season with a win with our seniors. They've done everything we've asked them to do. We need to come together the next seven days and move forward."