NC State didn't expect to have its back against the wall with three games remaining, but a 33-6 loss to Virginia Saturday has altered the stretch drive and what needs to happen.
Virginia whipped NC State, both on offense and defense, and some ill-timed penalties hampered the Wolfpack special teams. The loss dropped NC State to 5-4 overall and 2-3 in the ACC with games remaining against Wake Forest next week, followed by at Clemson and home vs. Boston College.
NC State's immediate goal is to become bowl eligible, but the loss against Virginia showed that anything can happen in a week-to-week sport. The Cavaliers, who improved to 3-6 overall and 1-4 in the ACC, had lost six straight games entering the contest.
The Cavaliers proved to be a radically different team following their off week. Virginia had accumulated just seven sacks and four turnovers (three fumble recoveries and an interception) through the first eight games. UVa responded with six sacks, three interceptions and two recovered fumbles. NC State also turned the ball over on downs twice.
"This was not a good day and I give Virginia a lot of credit," NC State coach Tom O'Brien said. "They certainly used their off week to a good advantage. They went after us and we didn't respond.
"That's on me and we have to get it corrected. We have to get this football team gets back to doing what it has to do to win football games."
The turnovers plagued NC State for the second straight game, and essentially in all four losses this season. The Wolfpack also had two interceptions and two fumbles in their heartbreaking 43-35 loss to rival North Carolina. The Tar Heels also had five sacks, and like the Cavaliers, benefited from numerous dropped passes.
NC State fifth-year senior quarterback Mike Glennon was in the middle of the struggles on offense. The Wolfpack struggled running the football again, rushing for just 19 yards on 24 carries, and fell behind 16-0 in the second half, another trend of late. O'Brien said they just don't have consistency up front and can't just throw the ball every time.
NC State normally puts its hopes on Glennon's strong right arm when behind, but the constant pressure, drops by his receiving targets and turnovers, caught up to him. Glennon finished 23-of-46 passing for 197 yards, one touchdown and three picks before giving way to backup quarterback Manny Stocker late in the game. The UVa pass rush even was able to get Glennon for a safety when defensive tackle Will Hill got into the backfield with 3:17 left in the first half to build the lead to 16-0.
The offense never found a rhythm and scratched out only a 2-yard touchdown pass to fifth-year senior tight end Mario Carter with 6:30 left in the game to cut the lead to 26-6.
"We have to execute better," Glennon said. "We showed signs, but you also have to give Virginia some credit. They played a good game. I thought we had a good week of practice, but we didn't play well."
Virginia on the other hand found little trouble running the football and pieced together a passing attack while rotation sophomore quarterback Phillip Sims and junior Michael Rocco. The duo combined to go 20-of-35 passing for 198 yards and two touchdowns, and rushed eight times for 29 yards and a score. Neither committed a turnover and were sacked just once.
Rocco connected on a 18-yard touchdown pass to Darius Jennings to give the Cavaliers a 14-0 lead with 27 seconds left in the first quarter. The score followed Sims' one-yard touchdown run to kick-start UVa, and he later added a 38-yard touchdown pass to Tim Smith with 11:10 left in the third quarter to extend the lead to 23-0.
Salisbury, N.C., native Kevin Parks rushed for 115 yards on 25 carries and a late 31-yard touchdown. The Cavaliers tallied 248 rushing yards on 48 carries and two scores.
"They ran ball down our throat on the first drive," NCSU fifth-year safety Earl Wolff said. "They came out and smashed us in the mouth and we didn't respond."
NC State didn't think the loss to North Carolina last week carried over to the UVa game, but something clearly wasn't the same with the Wolfpack. O'Brien didn't sense anything about a UNC hangover at practice this past week, and neither did the players.
"We came home again and didn't put up much of a fight," Glennon said. "It's probably a worse loss than last week."
O'Brien simply said Virginia did what they expected them to do. He also pointed out that the Cavaliers did a good job of taking away the deep ball.
"This is a week-to-week profession and they had a week off, prepared for this and beat us," O'Brien said. "They played better than we did, and that is what it comes down to.
"They backed way up [on defense]. We had gotten them last year [with deep balls to wide receiver Bryan Underwood], and that is to be expected after last week [at UNC]. When you throw the ball underneath and can't catch it, you have problems."
NC State also had seven penalties to go along with the dropped passes.
"We couldn't sustain anything," O'Brien said. "We took some chances there in the second half trying to get back in it, and it didn't work
"Nobody is giving up. We will come out fighting next week."
The loss left the Wolfpack players wondering what went wrong and how can it be fixed for Wake Forest next week.
"After the game, I just looked at the scoreboard and couldn't believe it," Wolff said. "Everybody was moping around. We brought everybody in the middle and Coach O'Brien talked. It's just upsetting and it hurts.
"It all comes down to heart. People have to dig deep. I feel you should have a motive to play, somebody you play for or something you play for."