In a Nutshell
East Carolina made more plays.
It may sound like a broken record to Pack fans, but the other team made the impactful plays when the outcome was still in doubt.
Led by quarterback Shane Carden, the Pirate offense was pivotal to their 35-7 lead at the end of three quarters, the first time NC State trailed by such a deficit since Florida State.
When the Wolfpack did find it's rhythm offensively, the game was essentially over.
"Obviously, we played to the end and I am very proud of our guys for that," said Wolfpack head coach Dave Doeren following the contest. "We didn't make enough plays defensively or offensively in the first half and when we came alive in the fourth quarter, unfortunately it was a little too late."
Defense Wearing Down?
For much of the season NC State's defense has been the team's biggest strength, but over the last couple of weeks they've been gashed, particularly on the ground.
After allowing Boston College tailback Andre Williams to rush for over 300 yards last week, East Carolina churned out 184 yards, with starter Vintavius Cooper totaling 148 on 22 carries and quarterback Shane Carden recording two rushing touchdowns.
The group really didn't provide much resistance. East Carolina scored touchdowns on six of nine offensive drives, and only had two three-and-outs. The Pirates did their damage by sustaining long drives, but scoring quickly. Their average starting field position was the East Carolina 30-yard line, and averaged a stellar 6.3 yards per play.
Overall, the East Carolina offense did whatever they wanted. They didn't have any turnovers, converted 8-of-12 first downs, and totaled 445 yards of offense while taking the foot off the pedal in the fourth quarter with a comfortable lead.
It's a troubling sign for NC State's defense, a unit that has been relatively healthy the last couple of games. They need to regroup this week with Maryland coming to town.
Would Like That One Back
NC State had a chance to go into halftime with some momentum, but junior kicker Nik Sade missed a 38-yard field goal with 25 seconds left in the second quarter that would have cut East Carolina's lead to 21-10 and the Pack receiving the ball to start the second half.
Looking back, that miss was critical... the result of a 13-play, 51-yard drive.
Dave Doeren hinted at it all week. NC State believed their best chance of defeating East Carolina was by keeping running the football and keeping ECU's high-powered offense on the sidelines.
The plan seemed to work early on, as both sides used long drives in the first quarter to score, with the Pack's 14-play, 76-yard driving taking 7 minutes and 52 seconds off the game clock.
However, NC State's inability to consistently generate a push and stay out of third-and-long/third-and-medium proved to be their downfall.
On the first drive they converted four third downs, with the longest being a 3rd-and-5 from the five-yard line (Brandon Mitchell's five-yard touchdown pass to Tony Creecy). They never converted a third down longer than five yards the rest of the half, as four drives stalled with the Pack's offense not converting (3-5, 3-7, 3-14, 3-9). The first drive of the second half ended with an incompletion on 3rd and 9.... next thing you know, NC State's down 28-7.
The Pack's inability to consistently do enough on first and second down left them in yardage situations that isn't ideal for the offense... they just aren't explosive enough right now to convert against an experienced defense like East Carolina.
While it would have been great to be able to win the game by consistently winning in the trenches and grounding out yards, ultimately NC State probably needed to be more aggressive through the air on early downs to prevent those long-yardage situations.
Mitchell Makes Plays Late
It was good to see some prolific passing, particularly later in the game from senior quarterback Brandon Mitchell. He finished 28-of-44 for 312 yards with zero interceptions and was sacked just one time. Mitchell completed passes to eight different receivers and also added 30 yards rushing.
State seemed to do a much better job of missing in some short passes with deep outs and skinny posts when Mitchell was connecting, instead of relying as much on strictly vertical routes as they did much of the first three quarters.
When you compare the offenses, it's easy to see why Shane Carden is so prolific, as the Pirates make it simple for him. He gets the ball out of his hands quickly and is accurate on underneath routes where his receivers and tailbacks can then make plays in space.
Looking back, it makes you wonder how much better off NC State would have been offensively if Mitchell hadn't missed the early portion of the season with a foot injury. An inexperienced passer, he didn't receive those reps against Louisiana Tech, Richmond, and Central Michigan that would certainly have helped him develop more as a passer and within the system. Instead, he played three series versus La. Tech and missed a string of games before returning to play Florida State on the road. Good luck with that.
"He was never the starting quarterback at the last school so he's never had that ability to go game-to-game-to-game and progress," said Doeren. "He's always been an athlete doing what they've asked him to do.
"It hurt a lot. Just look at our freshmen. Look how much better Ramos is playing because he's had all these games to improve. Even though Brandon is a senior he's really like a freshman as a quarterback."
Mitchell should have some much-needed confidence coming off his first big game of the season.