It's safe to say that things aren't going well for the 2011 iteration of NC State football. A two-game losing streak, both blowout losses (a four-touchdown deficit with five minutes left is a blowout, sorry) and an understandably irritated fan base.
O'Brien has to stop making excuses, valid or not, and get this team turned around. The schedule is luckily in his favor – Central Michigan at home, then a bye week and then a trip to Virginia. If the next three weeks don't result in two more wins, this is a team that is in serious trouble of imploding.
2. Will NC State dominate from start to finish?
This is a game that NC State doesn't just need to win, it needs to dominate from the opening kick-off to the final whistle. A good start would be a nice step for this team, something it hasn't been able to make happen all season long. The Pack has yet to put together a good first 15 minutes of football, falling behind by double-digits in all three games against FBS opponents and going scoreless on offense. Even against FCS the Pack managed just 10 points combined over two games.
Getting out to a fast start is the biggest obstacle for the Pack, but if it overcomes that it needs to keep its foot on the gas. The Pack needs to make sure the outcome is never in doubt and gives itself a dose of confidence heading into the bye week before it finishes the season with six-straight conference games.
3. Can the offense put it all together?
NC State's offense has been maddeningly schizophrenic lately. Against Cincinnati it couldn't run the ball or sustain any drives, relying on big plays to score the only two touchdowns of the game. Then against Georgia Tech the Pack turned on the running game and was able to produce long, methodical drives – but the Pack couldn't throw the ball down the field.
For NC State to score consistently, it needs both. It needs the big passing plays from the likes of T.J. Graham and Tobais Palmer (who emerged as an offensive threat only to disappear in the last two weeks). It needs a running attack that can move the chains. Until it gets both the Pack will continue to end drives with three points or no points and putting the burden back on its injury-riddled defense.
4. Will the defense ever generate turnovers again?
Liberty gave the ball away to NC State seven times to start the 2011 season, leading us to assume that despite its flaws the Pack's zone defense would continue to generate turnovers and stop opponents on third down to make up for the chunks of yardage its prone to giving up.
But against FBS opponents the Pack has been awful at creating turnovers, with just three combined turnovers in three games. If it can't generate turnovers, the Pack defense has little chance of being successful – and the 123 points allowed in those three games are painful evidence of that fact. The Pack does have one of its biggest play-makers back with the return of J.R. Sweezy, and perhaps that will be the spark they need to start winning the turnover battle again.
5. Will there be empty seats on Saturday?
Carter-Finley stadium is sold-out for the entirety of the 2011 season, but the actual attendance at Saturday's game will be an interesting barometer. There's an aura of discontent surrounding the entire program after two embarrassing losses and if that translates into empty seats and lost dollars then the pressure to turn things around will intensify by a couple orders of magnitude.
Angry fans aren't nearly as bad for coaches as apathetic fans. And if there are several thousands no-shows on Saturday, that's a sign that apathy is beginning to set in.