"The season's not a disaster, because you guys picked us seventh in the league anyway," said Amato, tongue-in-cheek, referring to the preseason media poll predicting the ACC standings. "Anything that we finish above seventh, if we can, we've had a successful year – at least that's the way you'll write it, I hope."
Following each of the other two losses this year, the Wolfpack has responded with a crucial road win in conference play. After a home loss to Ohio State, NC State went to Blacksburg, Va., and knocked off Virginia Tech, 17-16. Then, on the heels of a controversial loss to the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill, N.C., the Pack journeyed to College Park, Md., and beat the Maryland Terrapins, 13-3.
Amato has been proud of the way his squad has been able to bounce back from disheartening defeats, and hopes the team can do so yet again. NC State fell to third-ranked Miami, 45-31, Saturday, and now heads to Death Valley to tangle with the Clemson Tigers.
"I hope they don't stop," Amato said of his team's resiliency. "They've really done a good job of being able to come back, but that's part of sports. That's why a lot of people will hire youngsters that are in athletics, because they know the ups and downs of life. They know that you're not going to get every sale, they know you're not going to write the prize-winning story about a game every week. They're going to learn that's life; that you have to take the good with the bad and then go on. Because it's an education in itself on life, and it's something that we have to do here, [say], ‘Hey, it's time to prepare for another game.'"
The common thread in the "statement game" losses to Ohio State and Miami were the Wolfpack committed a litany of mistakes in each contest. NC State was whistled for 24 penalties and turned the ball over nine times in the two setbacks combined, perhaps showing that the team is so anxious for a victory over a big-name, highly ranked program that it is pressing too much.
"I know you guys are tired of hearing this – it's just discipline; it just goes back to discipline," said safeties coach Manny Diaz after Wednesday's practice. "It's so funny how these are the things that happen in the games where everybody is fired up and so excited. You want so badly to make a big play, that if you would just cover your man, and they threw that guy the ball, you'd have a chance to make a big play. But you want to make a big play so badly that you're looking in the backfield, and all of a sudden your man slips away from you, and the whole reason why you're doing it is you want to make a big play – and now they're making a big play on you.
"It's just one of those things that, from a rational standpoint, you say, ‘How on earth, if you're playing man, do you just not cover him?' But out there, where things get a little crazy and hairy and stuff like that, that's what happens."
A big part of Amato's job comes when it comes time to correct those mistakes and breakdowns. The head man has to walk a fine line between punishment and encouragement, harping and motivation.
"I think it's a big part, really," Amato said. "And again, that's what makes athletics such a neat thing, that young men learn a great lesson in life out there: that not everything is always here [high] and not everything is always there [low], but it's somewhere in between. You have to learn how to react when you have a big win and forget about it, and learn how to react when you have a huge loss.
"I think it's big. We show the film on Monday, and when you're correcting mistakes, it's kind of a negative thing. You're being positive with some of it, saying, ‘We can't have this, and this is why you did that. This is why you didn't execute.' But then there comes a point where they've got to start hearing some good things about them – and we did an awful lot of good things in that game last week [against Miami]."
Defensively, the Pack has held four opponents under 200 offensive yards this year. The defensive staff is constantly pointing out that State is such a difficult "D" to play that sometimes the only way for other teams to move the ball is by way of Wolfpack penalty or missed assignments.
"We have to continue to show our guys that when we've had success this year … when we just cover our people, people have a hard time getting first downs on us, let alone touchdowns," said Diaz. "This is what we always try to stress in everything: You know you're getting to be pretty good when it doesn't matter who you're playing or which team. I tell my guys all the time that it doesn't matter whether you're playing Ohio State or Miami or Tahiti Tech -- you've got to cover your guy. Because here's the thing: that guy is going to score if there's a 12-yard hole for him to run into. But for whatever reason, sometimes when the games get bigger, the eyes start to go [cross-eyed] -- so we've got to get back on those guys to do their jobs."
That job starts tomorrow in Death Valley. If the Pack is to continue the trend of responding to difficult losses with landmark road wins, Amato & Co. have to keep the mood and confidence level of the team up, which has been a strength of this staff this year. Amato said that part of the praise should also go to a strong senior class that has worked hard to keep the season on line.
"They do awfully well. Our seniors have done an outstanding job of keeping this team together, really from Day One," said Amato. "You could see the chemistry of the seniors way back in the spring."
Now, with only four regular-season games remaining for those seniors, the Wolfpack has another chance to get back on track and build momentum for a sterling finish. If the past is any indicator, look for NC State to come out with a fiery, us-against-the-world mentality tomorrow, and put together another stellar road showing.