O?Brien in Trouble at NC State?

JIM HURLEY'S HANDICAPPING NOTEBOOK

TOM O'BRIEN HASN'T TURNED AROUND WOLFPACK PROGRAM AS HOPED

It was with much fanfare that Tom O'Brien took over as head coach of the NC State Wolfpack at the end of the 2006 season. He had just finished off his third straight 9-3 season with Boston College, and a solid tenure that saw him win his last six bowl appearances on the sideline for the Golden Eagles.

NC State (featured tonight in a national TV game against Cincinnati on ESPN) was tired of floundering with Chuck Amato, and stepped up to hire away somebody else's success story from within the same conference. You don't see that often in college sports. It made a bit more sense here because NC State is a traditional ACC program, while Boston College is more of a "made for TV"newcomer who's only been in the league since 2005.

It was pretty much universally acknowledged at the time that O'Brien was the ideal candidate for the job. The media noted that O'Brien was selected over Navy coach Paul Johnson. This bit of the story won't go away because Johnson subsequently moved to Georgia Tech in the ACC, and promptly led the Yellowjackets to a conference championship.

O'Brien hasn't led NC State to much of anything.

NC STATE UNDER O'BRIEN
2007: 5-7, 3-5 in ACC play
2008: 6-7, 4-4 in ACC play
2009: 5-7, 2-6 in ACC play

We place more weight on conference games because it's possible to schedule yourself a few gifts in September that don't really reflect on the coach or the program. So, we're looking at 9-15 within the league in three seasons. And, as we've documented here in the NOTEBOOK through that period, it hasn't been a great conference. Bowl results haven't exactly sparkled. To the limited degree the league gives itself challenges outside the conference in September, things haven't been terrific.

(Let's quickly note that the same thing seems to be true this year. Virginia Tech lost a toughie to Boise State before getting stunned by James Madison. You probably watched Miami of Florida lose at Ohio State last Saturday, and Florida State get completely outclassed by Oklahoma).

O' Brien was supposed to make this team a contender for the ACC title. They've finished fifth in their six-team division twice in his tenure.

There was a brief highlight from late 2008 through early 2009 that provided hope for the program. It truly looked like O'Brien had things moving in the right direction...and moving with some authority:

  • NC State finished the 2008 season with four straight regular season victories. They were getting the job done on both sides of the ball. A bowl loss to Rutgers was a bit of a downer, but it was a good game and not any sort of sign of the apocalypse.
  • NC State started 2009 with a 3-1 record that included a 38-31 victory over eventual Big East contender Pittsburgh. Sure, a 7-3 opening season loss to South Carolina was ugly. The problems seemed to be fixed. In regular season action, this represented a 7-1 run in a sport where it's difficult to string together wins like that if you're not legitimate. Nobody was suggesting the Wolfpack had "arrived"where they wanted to be. Clearly, they were heading in the right direction.
  • TRAIN WRECK! NC State would lose six of its next seven games and fall completely off the radar. A season finale rivalry win over North Carolina kept 2009 from being a total disaster. Still, you're supposed to show up for your rivalry games. Why wasn't NC State getting the job done the rest of the time?

That's where we were heading into the 2010 season. Nobody was drinking the O'Brien kool-aid any more. It was his job to prove he still belonged with the program. He entered Raleigh on a white horse, and was on the verge of being sent out of town by rail. It's basically now or never in terms of his NC State career.

Week One saw a scrimmage victory over Western Carolina. Week Two saw this. Be sure you read the boxscore stats rather than the final score.
 
NC STATE 28, CENTRAL FLORIDA 21
Total Yardage: NC State 239, C. Florida 308
Rushing Yardage: NC State 134, C. Florida 95
Passing Stats: NC State 10-30-0-105, C. Florida 17-29-3-213
Turnovers: NC State 0, C. Florida 5
Vegas Line: Central Florida by 3, total of 52

Comments:
The Wolfpack was gifted a victory thanks to a first half implosion from a mistake-prone host. Now, we want to give the hustling NC State defense some credit for forcing those turnovers. But, nobody can force FIVE turnovers on command. It takes lack of preparation and execution for an offense to screw up that much.

What should really jump out at you here is the passing line for Russell Wilson of NC State. Wilson had thrown more than 650 passes entering the 2010 season. He's a junior, but he's not an inexperienced junior. He CAN'T have a game that bad at this stage of his career if he's playing on a team that's going anywhere. But, he did. That suggests very strongly he's not going to be an impact player this season, and he's surrounded by a shortage of impact players as well.

Hey, who are we to complain about a 2-0 start highlighted by a road upset? We're handicappers. It's our JOB to notice what's REALLY happening on the field. NC State began their "job saving"season for their head coach with a sloppy effort that was fortunate to yield a victory. That's generally not an indicator for a big season. It's an indicator that the players stopped drinking the kool-aid too.

Coach O'Brien and company can change our minds about that with an impressive showing tonight vs. Cincinnati. They catch a break because Cincinnati looks to have dropped WAY off last year's pace. Last year's Bearcat coach Brian Kelly is now at Notre Dame. Replacement Butch Jones isn't getting the same kind of performance from his roster.

WEEK ONE
FRESNO STATE 28, CINCINNATI 14
Total Yardage: Cincinnati 234, Fresno State 296
Rushing Yardage: Cincinnati 15, Fresno State 49
Passing Stats: Cincinnati 24-41-0-219, Fresno State 18-24-1-247
Turnovers: Cincinnati 1, Fresno State 1
Vegas Line: Fresno State by 2, total of 58

Comments: A very poor showing, particularly since Cincinnati actually jumped to a 14-0 early lead. They disappeared in the second half, getting no production from anyone. The defense didn't embarrass itself to be sure. The offense was missing in action. This is amazing considering how great the Bearcats were last year at putting points on the board, and how much weaponry was still in the picture entering the season.

WEEK TWO
CINCINNATI 40, INDIANA STATE 7
Total Yardage: Indiana State 254, Cincinnati 393
Rushing Yardage: Indiana State 93, Cincinnati 263
Passing Stats: Indiana State 23-38-0-161, Cincinnati 11-17-0-130
Turnovers: Indiana State 1, Cincinnati 2
Vegas Line: Outlaw number of Cincinnati by 45

Comments: Don't focus on the final score, which was boosted by field position against a weak opponent. The keys to be aware of here are:

  • Cincinnati was favored by 45, meaning they were supposed to annihilate this team.
  • Cincinnati only won yardage 393-254, and lost the turnover battle, which is VERY poor for this kind of opponent. Most of the cupcake games the past two weeks (with the occasional shocking exception like JMU over Virginia Tech) have seen yardage in the high 400's to the 100's.
  • Cincinnati only led at halftime 12-7. So, starter vs. starter vs. a horrible team, Cincinnati could do no better than 12-7 at the break before wearing down relative weaklings in the latter stages of the game.

Last year's Cincinnati team would have flown past 500 yards by the third quarter, and probably led 40-7 at the half. HUGE DIFFERENCE THIS YEAR!

So, as you handicap tonight's ESPN affair, be aware that BOTH teams are lacking confidence offensively...and that BOTH coaches are under the gun. One is trying to show he belongs in a BCS conference (Jones), the other is trying to show he still belongs in a BCS conference (O'Brien).

JIM HURLEY had this game circled before the season for some reasons that will probably come to light before the second half. NETWORK'S selection tonight will help kick off a huge weekend that continues Friday with a pair of college games, and then through the weekend with a true smorgasbord of big play winners.

You can purchase everything online with your credit card right here at the website. Game day releases are up a few hours before kickoff. Or, sign up for seasonal packages with the BLUE RIBBON or CLOSED CIRCUIT clubs and get weeknight prime-time winners as part of your package.

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Something BIG is going to happen tonight. We'll leave it at that!

19
Nov

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