That's an honorable position, and consistent with the company line toed by NC State under coach Chuck Amato. But the truth of the matter is that the Pack's 4-6 record doesn't begin to do justice to what will go down as one of the finest defenses in the history of State football.
With one regular-season remaining, the Wolfpack "D" is beginning to cement its place in the school record books. NC State has given up 2,295 yards this season, the second-fewest in school history at this point, just ahead of the 2,364 allowed in 1957 – keep in mind that team's played just 10 games per season back then, the same number the Pack has played thus far. State is giving up just 229.5 yards per contest, which would be the fewest ever; the current record is 236.4 per game in 1957. The Red and White is surrendering just 3.61 yards per play, the second-lowest average in school annals, behind the 2.3 allowed in 1962 and ahead of the 3.7 given up in both 1965 and 1988.
The Wolfpack has allowed just 1,096 rushing yards so far, trailing only the 946 given up by the 1946 squad. That average of 109.6 rushing yards surrendered per game is tied for second-fewest in school history with the 1990 club; opponents have rushed for just 2.8 yards per attempt, also tied for second-lowest with the 1990 Pack.
NC State is currently back as the nation's No. 1 total defense and ranks second in the land in pass defense (119.9 yards per contest) and third in pass-efficiency defense (96.07). Just ask Florida State's Lorenzo Booker how good the Wolfpack "D" is.
"Better than Miami's, better than Virginia's," Booker told the Associated Press. "I say that because they were everywhere. It was like you break a tackle or get outside, and there are three more guys coming."
The performance of the defense in comparison to last year's makes the numbers even more staggering. The Wolfpack gave up 301 first downs a season ago, but has allowed just 128 thus far. Last season's defense surrendered 45 total touchdowns, including 17 on the ground, but this year's has given up just 21, including only five rushing scores. State allowed 7.2 yards per pass in 2003, compared to just 4.9 in 2004. Opponents converted 36 percent (72-199) of third downs last year, but just 28 percent (46-162) this season. The Pack already has more sacks (30) in 10 games than it had in 13 last year (27).
The domination has come despite a youthful defensive line: first-year starter Manny Lawson and true sophomore Mario Williams would be the bookends at defensive end, while sophomores John McCargo and Tank Tyler would be the defensive tackle tandem. From the first day of fall camp, Herring served notice that he wouldn't let youth stand in the way of domination on defense.
"If you have ever hit somebody in the mouth, it doesn't matter if you're 22, 20 or 19," said Herring. "How hard you're hitting them in the mouth, I didn't know there was a limitation on your age."
Lawson (seven) and Williams (six) have combined for 13 sacks, while McCargo has continued his maturation as one of the conference's finest interior linemen. The play of the defensive line and the rest of the Wolfpack defenders at times allowed NC State to successfully play Big Ten-style football, especially in road games at Virginia Tech (17-16) and Maryland (13-3). Herring relished the added responsibilities placed on his defense.
"You'd like to be balanced as a program, but I think we, as a team and as a defense, from day one started to lay down a foundation to win on defense and with the kicking game," said Herring. "We've challenged our players almost to the point of being unfair to them, putting pressure on them in practice where they can handle almost any kind of other pressure."
In the end, the 2004 version of the Wolfpack was undone by penalties and turnover margin (-15), categories in which NC State ranks third-to-last in the country. Those difficulties ensured State's first losing season since 1996 despite five games in which the defense held the opponent under 200 total yards. However, Herring never worried about what was going on with the other side of the ball; instead, he pushed his defense for more, and better. When his squad was being lauded in all circles for 10 sacks against the Hokies, Herring barked the film study showed his team should have had 15. He constantly warned that his unit was a bad game or two away from dropping to the middle of the national standings in total defense.
"If we want to have the kind of defense that we preach to our players, you've got to bring it every week, day in and day out," Herring said. "This defense is just scratching the surface... We have not reached our full potential."
Maybe not in Herring's mind, but it will be hard to find too many areas of improvement following the campaign. The defense did allow the occasional big gainer and didn't force as many turnovers as it would have liked, but the defensive staff will attack those blemishes with Herring-style intensity prior to the regular-season finale against East Carolina and this offseason.
On the whole, Herring's hellions proved to give NC State its identity this year, and it's a crying shame that one of the school's best-ever defenses won't be featured for the country to see in a bowl game. But just imagine what Herring could do with a year under his belt and the opportunity to recruit to his system?
"If we do what we are supposed to do defensively," said Herring, "then I think we are a pretty exciting bunch."
True enough, Coach – and kudos for an amazing year.