Last year, the Wolfpack posted a modest +2 in turnover margin, forcing 21 turnovers (11 interceptions, 10 fumble recoveries) while turning the ball over 19 times itself (nine picks, 12 recoveries). However, through five games this season, NC State is a staggering –7 in turnover margin, turning the ball over a dozen times while forcing just five by the opposition, leading to a rocky, uneven start to the campaign.
The Wolfpack has not intercepted a pass since the first game of the year, when safety Marcus Hudson and reserve safety J.J. Jones recorded picks. The Pack hasn't gotten a turnover since Virginia Tech dropped a punt snap in Blacksburg, and has only two interceptions and three fumble recoveries in five games this year.
Making the situation worse is that State suffered a setback in the turnover game against UNC last week. The Pack had been showing a propensity to take better care of the ball, especially late in games. Against Virginia Tech, the Wolfpack had two first-quarter turnovers before going the rest of the way without a miscue. Against Wake Forest, the Pack threw a first-quarter pick that was returned for a touchdown, but didn't turn the ball over again in the final three quarters or overtime. In Chapel Hill, NC State turned the ball over three times and didn't get any turnovers on defense or in the kicking game.
While there is a middle ground between trying too hard to force turnovers and playing too passively, Amato said that sometimes turnovers involve the luck of the football's bounce – or the lack thereof.
"We actually had an opportunity to get two a week ago [at UNC]," Amato said. "One time on a fumble, there was six of us and two of them: the guy who fumbled it and one guy who was kind of standing right near the ball – and it went right to him. Had we gotten that, we would have only been –1 [in turnover margin].
"And we had an interception in the end zone [that was dropped]. It would have been a great interception – but great players make great plays. If he makes that, it was a push on turnovers and all the rest of it is a moot point."
The key phrase in all of that is "great players make great plays." At Virginia Tech, Hudson appeared to reel in an interception on the Hokies' final drive that would have cemented the victory for the Wolfpack, but the ball slipped away as he was tucking it in. On a third-and-10 against the Heels, defensive end Manny Lawson got around the corner and bore down on UNC quarterback Darian Durant, closing in a drive-ending sack. However, he appeared to concentrate more on getting a strip than wrapping up the slippery quarterback, and Durant got away and went nine yards. On fourth-and-one, fullback Madison Hedgecock rumbled for 25 yards that set up a Tar Heels field goal and took valuable time off the clock.
Earlier in the year, a sputtering offense often put the defense on the field for long stretches of time, tiring out the unit. Still, heading into the game with the Tar Heels, NC State ranked No. 2 nationally in total defense (allowing 193.8 yards per game) and first in pass defense (92.2 yards). The Heels managed 356 offensive yards, including 192 through the air. However, Amato said that the mistakes that the Wolfpack made on defense are correctable.
"As long as we play disciplined, I'm not concerned one bit," said Amato. "I'm concerned if we play loosey-goosey. If we play disciplined, if you do what the coaches tell you to do … [It's knowing that] ‘If I've got you, I don't need to look at him.'
"It wasn't loosey-goosey; there was no discipline [against UNC]."
The dismal showing in the turnover category is certainly taking its toll on the Wolfpack defense. Heading into the UNC game, 33 of the 59 points NC State had allowed (56 percent) came as a result of a turnover or a mistake in the kicking game. Interceptions thrown by the Pack had led to 17 points, fumbles had yielded 13 points and a 58-yard punt return resulted in a field goal.
Amato doesn't sound too concerned about the turnover situation just yet, citing NC State's ability to rush the passer and the difficulty involved in defensive backs notching interceptions while playing man-to-man coverage, where they play the receiver more than the ball.
"When you play a lot of man coverage, it's tough sometimes to get [turnovers]," Amato said. "But I'll trade 10 sacks for no interceptions, because it's hidden yardage."
Point taken. The Pack's 10 sacks against Virginia Tech were the second-best total in a game in school history -- but it also appears to have been an aberration. If you take out that 10-sack outing, the Wolfpack has a grand total of six sacks in the other four games this season.
The issue extends to the kicking game. NC State led the ACC in non-offensive touchdowns in both 2002 and 2003, tallying nine and 10 in those seasons, respectively. Hudson recovered a blocked punt by fellow safety Troy Graham for a score in the season opener, but the Pack has not tallied a non-offensive touchdown – or blocked a punt – since. Two of the reasons that the Wolfpack keeps finding itself in halftime holes – it hasn't led at the half since the season opener vs. Richmond – are an inability to force turnovers and the subpar effort of the State return and "attack" teams.
Against Maryland, the Pack could get healthy in the turnover battle in a hurry. Quarterback Joel Statham has thrown seven interceptions already this year and he and backup Jordan Steffy combined to be sacked eight times by Georgia Tech last week. The prospect of two inexperienced signal-callers facing a blitzing defense has to bode well for coordinator Reggie Herring's defense, but the Wolfpack's great players have to heed Amato's plea – and make great plays.