A Look Pack At 2004

Because I'm still suffering from the post-holiday blahs also known as "being too full to walk more than 10 feet before having to take a seat," I couldn't seem to come up with anything creative on my own to write this week. I thought and thought, but ... nothing.

Then I came across Sports Illustrated's Peter King's year-ending column and thought, hey, there's nothing wrong with borrowing a good idea, right? So, like Mr. King, here is a look back at what I got right and (mostly) wrong in the year that was 2004.

Jan. 15, 2004, "The 'Boo-tiful' Game"
My first column of the year took a look at the inner conflict that some NCSU fans possess regarding the Wolfpack basketball program. For numerous reasons, including the fact that Sendek "rarely wears red," some fans will never fully accept the man as the leader of the Pack.

... Sendek, to his credit, has battled these storms before and does so with scholar-like patience. He stubbornly stands by his system and his players (his "interchangeable parts," if you will). It's still way too early to tell, but Sendek may just win the battle for another year, even if he doesn't win the war in the long run. ...

At the time this column was written, State was starting to play as a cohesive unit, but still didn't resemble the team that would eventually finish second in the ACC and reach a third straight NCAA tournament. In fact, yours truly had the Pack as the No. 4 team in the conference at the time - behind Wake Forest, Duke, North Carolina and tied with Georgia Tech.

Feb. 20, 2004, "Fairly Predictable"
Despite the fact that NC State basketball claims two national titles and an up and coming football program (a program that has recently produced the likes of Torry Holt and Philip Rivers, mind you), there is still an air of defeatism surrounding State sports. And I'm just as guilty for feeling that way as anyone.

Sendek's team, which had played some good ball of late, traveled to Clemson for a mid-week game on February 18, and things, uh, didn't turn out too well.

... Who among us didn't have at least a hint of doubt that the Pack was going to find a way to lose the game at Clemson? Some in the local media stated that there was no way the Pack would lose at Clemson. Ah ha! We Pack fans knew better. ...

Fate, Karma, the gods, the odds or whatever has dictated time and time and time again that as soon as you think State (FILL IN THE SPORT NAME HERE) is on its way to the top of the league, something extremely unfortunate will happen. Let's call it Wendell Murphy's 3rd Law: "Anything that can go wrong to the beloved Wolfpack will go wrong." ...

[Note: I'm not one to toot my own horn, but all you have to do is look at what happened in the rest of 2004 to firmly believe that this is true. Do the words "Vanderbilt," "points off the scoreboard" or "Drew Brees" make your skin crawl? Are Dawn Bunting's services (see below) available for hire?]

The good news is that as of February 20, 2004 I had State basketball in second place behind Duke - so there's at least a shred of optimism here.

March 11, 2004, "Turning a Blue Tide"
Perhaps some of that aforementioned "defeatism" comes from the fact that NC State athletics has dropped down a peg or two in the hierarchy of North Carolina collegiate sports fanaticism. This wasn't always the case.

... [It] shouldn't surprise us folks of the red persuasion that when Sports Illustrated featured the state of North Carolina in its 50th anniversary online state-by-state edition that of the 400 North Carolinians polled, 28 percent picked UNC as their favorite college team with Duke coming in second at 15 percent. NC State, with the largest enrollment of any university in the state, a 19,000-plus basketball arena and a football program that's been to four straight bowl games under the charismatic Chuck Amato, came in third at 12 percent.

Along the same lines, when asked to vote on the state's biggest rivalry, Duke-UNC was the favorite with 56 percent of the votes, while State-Carolina garnered 25 percent. And when folks were asked who the "greatest athlete who ever lived in or played in your state" was, [Michael] Jordan got a whopping 72 percent. David Thompson, who was Michael Jordan before Michael Jordan was Michael Jordan, received 4 percent. Four! ...

Then, for reasons I can only imagine, I pulled a Rip Van Winkle and took a little break.

September 10, 2004, "An Explosive Beginning to an Explosive Night"
The 2004 NC State football season kicked off on September 4 against the Richmond Spiders. Expectations for Chuck Amato's team were unbelievably high, as evidenced by the atmosphere at Carter-Finley Stadium that night.

... State wasn't taking on a stellar program; the I-AA Spiders won just two games a season ago. But that's just the point. There was hardly an empty seat anywhere to be found inside Carter-Finley Stadium ... for a game against Richmond ... a game that the Pack would win going away ... on Labor Day weekend, the last chance for many families to hit the beach one final time for the summer.

Despite those elements, which in the past would've equaled generous attendance estimates of around 45,000 or so, the mood and atmosphere inside Carter-Finley was the kind you would expect for a much bigger game - such as when the Ohio State Buckeyes come to town next week. ...

What was I thinking at the time? At this time, the Virginia Tech Hokies were ranked seventh in my ACC football standings. Gulp.

September 24, 2004, "Wishful Thinking"
The previous season, Amato publicly opined that if he had had his way, his football team would've had a week off before traveling to Columbus, Ohio, to face the Ohio State Buckeyes. This season, he got his wish.

... This year when the schedule came out, there it was again: "Vs. Ohio State." But this time ... the Pack got a bye week after beating I-AA Richmond, meaning State would not have a game in-between beating up on the Spiders and before taking on the Buckeyes. ...

Unfortunately, the Pack looked like it had been two weeks since it had played a game. Aggressive penalties are one thing - Amato even offered the notion that the 14 penalties for 121 yards incurred by State against OSU were forgivable. ...

But State appeared out-of-sync offensively, and while that could be attributed to Ohio State's defense, the more likely cause was the Pack's lack of game experience. ...

What was I thinking at the time? Hokies have moved up to fifth; North Carolina sitting in a tie for eighth.

September 30, 2004, "Give Them a Chance"
Not to harp on a subject, but it appeared to me at the time that State really could've used another game in-between the Richmond and Ohio State contests. More to the point, quarterbacks Jay Davis and Marcus Stone could've used more game experience.

... Through the first three games of the season, neither Jay Davis nor Marcus Stone have shown that they can carry the Pack on their shoulders.

And it's not entirely their fault. There's an equation that can explain why State isn't getting much production from under center. ... Jay Davis rarely enjoyed game experiences the past couple of years, not just because Philip Rivers was such a phenomenal talent, but because the Pack rarely put opponents away because State's defense had more holes than Swiss cheese allowing opponents to stick around because the Pack had no defensive coordinator because Coach Chuck Amato didn't think a defensive coordinator was necessary. ... Not only are the two young quarterbacks not given a chance to get into rhythm, they are also not being given the opportunity to make amends for their mistakes. Instead of putting the negative behind them with the chance to make something good happen, they're on the sidelines, wondering about their respective roles but no doubt ready to get "back on that horse."

Admittedly, the best case either player can do to remain in a game is to lead the Pack down the field consistently. Neither has to put up Rivers-like numbers. But like Rivers, someone needs to be given the chance to learn and grow as a quarterback. And this time around there's the defensive personnel around to help out. ...

What was I thinking at the time? Ralph Friedgen's Maryland Terrapins are in fourth place in the ACC standings, while State is in fifth, and VPI sixth. (However, that seemed appropriate at the time considering the Pack had just beaten the Hokies in Blacksburg.)

October 8, 2004, "Voodoo Chile"
Things were looking pretty good for NC State football. Twenty or so miles down the road in Chapel Hill, things weren't so rosy. The Tar Heels were struggling, folks weren't exactly filling up Kenan Stadium, and Steve Spurrier was still unemployed. The fortunes of the two state university football programs in the Triangle appeared to be on disparate courses. Some (State fans, mostly) stated that the rivalry was losing its luster. Enter Dawn Bunting and her pre-game sage ritual.

... [John[ Bunting went on to admit that the sage ritual will take place before the Wolfpack visits on Saturday, saying "What are we, 2 and 1 at home? I'm sure we'll be burning some sage tomorrow."

And with those comments, State fans now have even more ammunition with which to rag their rivals - as if recent on-the-field history wasn't enough. And isn't that what rivalries are all about? ...

What was I thinking at the time? This was what I wrote before the State-Carolina game: Logic says that this will be a game that pits the two teams' strengths (NC State's defense and UNC's offense) against one another. However, State's offense, previously the Wolfpack's weak point, seems to be improving while UNC's offense, previously the Tar Heel's strength, may be regressing somewhat. NC State 28, North Carolina 17

Oops.

October 13, 2004, "Crying Over Spilled Milk"
OK, so we're back to the theme of defeatism, which tends to produce the unfortunate side effect of whining. There was lots of whining after the State-Carolina football game - and this time it was hard to NOT justify it.

... There have certainly been enough reasons, especially in the past few years, for Wolfpack fans to feel jaded. The connotation of being whiney is that the one doing the complaining truly has no reason to be whiney; there's no leg to stand on, so to speak. Is it fair to call someone out as being "whiney" when they're complaining about the flavors of free food? Absolutely. It is also unfair to call all Pack fans "whiney" following Saturday's never-will-we-soon-forget loss at North Carolina.

... On Sunday evening, about 20 hours after the game's end, I saw three different camera angles on the evening news, one from Time Warner's feed, the other two from local newscasts' on-the-field cameramen, and I came away with three different conclusions: 1) T.A. McLendon scored a touchdown, 2) McLendon didn't score a touchdown, and 3) I don't know what to believe anymore.

... As one veteran sports columnist wrote after the game, "Saturday night, I saw a good argument for instant replay in Atlantic Coast Conference football."

What was I thinking at the time? I erroneously predicted that Maryland would defeat the Pack, 35-28: With both teams coming off disappointing losses, you can expect a hard-hitting, intense contest which should again go down to the last minutes. Not quite. State won 13-3 in a game that may have been a sign of things to come for both squads. (See "Turtle Stewing," below.)

October 20, 2004, "Turtle Stewing"
If there is a team that Pack fans had truly learned to despise over the past three or four years (besides North Carolina), it was the Maryland Terrapins. Friedgen's team had ruined a couple of seasons for State, and in the previous three battles, the games went down to the wire before the Turtles ripped the Pack's hearts out. Fortunately, State came out on top in '04. Unfortunately, there was very little of which to celebrate: the Pack had defeated a bad Maryland team. (Of course, the Pack wasn't exactly good, as the season would bear out.)

... As the clock wound down on State's 13-3 win in College Park, the ABC cameras spotted Wolfpack Coach Chuck Amato going down the sidelines basically telling his players to behave ... But there was no need for Amato's warnings. State had just beaten an inept Maryland team. Where's the fun in that?

In recent State-Maryland clashes, the intensity and emotions have run so high that objects have been thrown from the stands onto the field - and vice versa. In 2001, oranges pelted the Carter-Finley Stadium turf (via jubilant Maryland fans) after the Terps had devastated the Pack and sealed up an Orange Bowl bid. Last season, it was water bottles (via frustrated State fans) that soared from the stands as UM players celebrated another gut-wrenching win.

But this Saturday, the only thing thrown was when Maryland Coach Ralph Friedgen threw in the proverbial towel, electing to punt the ball away with just over a minute left and the Pack up 10. There would be no miraculous comeback this time. There would be no controversial play at the end. Sigh. ...

What was I thinking at the time? At this point in the season, I had State ranked third in the ACC, eventual champ Virginia Tech fifth, and eventual surprise team UNC No. 9.

November 12, 2004, "The Joys of Being a Fan"
A year ago, I took a week-long vacation to a part of the world where it's not so easy to get ACC football scores. At that time, the Pack won two nail-biters, beating Duke and Virginia. The latter game was called by some as the greatest came in Carter-Finley history, so I obviously have great timing. This past November, I again took a jaunt, causing me to miss the Clemson and Georgia Tech games. Apparently, I didn't miss much this time around.

... I didn't know what had transpired in the world of Wolfpack football from the Clemson game to the Georgia Tech game, and that was good, in hindsight. ... I knew nothing of the (all-too-familiar) roller-coaster ride of the game versus the Yellow Jackets.

I was lucky.

Unfortunately, the friends I left behind, the ones who actually witnessed the two games, weren't so lucky.

"I don't expect national championships or even an ACC championship," one friend and Pack fan wrote in an email. "I expect to be competitive every week. My biggest issue right now is that we have more talent than every team we have played except for Miami, and we are 4-5. That means the players are not executing a game plan and strategy that allows us to win. And, bottom line that is the coaches' fault." ...

What was I thinking at the time? The Miami Hurricanes were in fourth place in somebody's ACC rankings with the description: The Hurricanes' first season in the league wasn't supposed to go like this.

December 3, 2004, "The Kids are All Right"
You can tell it's the holidays when you start comparing football teams to obscure Canadian sketch-comedians.

... [You] get what you asked for. ECU wanted this game. NC State, on the other hand, didn't; the fight was brought to the Pack.

Chuck Amato's team had little incentive to play the game, but State trotted out onto Bank of America Stadium's field and took care of business. It wasn't quite ho-hum fashion, but it was close. Many of the Pack players didn't quite know why they were playing the game; Amato and the State coaches had to build up the importance of the game by showing old clips (many of which, admittedly, were won by the Pirates). For a number of State's players - even for some from North Carolina - there's no instinctive hatred or even dislike for ECU. Just disinterest.

What was I thinking at the time? We all knew these two would have an impact on the ACC football race, but this is a bit ridiculous. ... The Hokies have a shot to go into the Orange Bowl and win the ACC title outright. ... While the Hokies waited a long time to get into the ACC, the Hurricanes have been preparing the past 25 years for championships, and won't miss out on this opportunity for another BCS bid. Miami 32, Virginia Tech 27

Double oops.

Have a great 2005!


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