A good number of N.C. State fans left Carter-Finley Stadium on Saturday night after the first half of the Wolfpack’s win over Ball State.
For the most part, the team followed suit.
N.C. State’s first night game of the season, and first September kickoff not in a blast furnace in seemingly forever, just kind of fizzled after the Wolfpack took control with a 20-7 lead at the half.
“That wasn’t pretty but it was a good win,” N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said.
It goes down as a 34-23 win and all wins are “good” wins or at least better than the alternative. Come November, the Wolfpack (3-1) might need it to square its bowl math.
Mostly, though, Saturday’s win to close out nonconference play was marked by indifference. After a “Power 5” challenge (and loss) last week at West Virginia, the idea of Ball State (not Mike Neu’s actual team, which was perfectly functional, but the idea) was just kind of “blah.”
Many of the 57,702 fans decided they had seen enough MAC-tion through 30 minutes. Large swatches of the stadium were empty for the second half and missed N.C. State’s offensive struggles.
Much like it did in the WVU loss, the offense couldn’t get going after the halftime break, with only the special teams saving the night. A long punt return by Thayer Thomas provided the first second-half touchdown while a punt block by Max Fisher set up the other.
Ball State actually out-scored N.C. State in the second half, for whatever that’s worth. Cardinals quarterback Drew Plitt threw for 333 yards. Most of the fans probably would preferred to have seen a different Cardinals quarterback.
“In the third and fourth quarter, there were a lot of empty seats,” Thomas said. “It was sort of surprising. We’re going to need a lot of fans for ACC play because we feed off the crowd’s energy.”
This would have been the ideal spot in the schedule for an ACC test or at least Georgia Tech. Instead, the Wolfpack looked good enough in the first half and then kind of went through the motions in the second half.
The good part about so many people leaving at the half is they didn’t have to watch a passing attack that accounted for 16 yards, on two completions, in the second half.
“We have to figure out a way to make second-half adjustments and play better in the second half,” Thomas said.
Part of the problem is getting the ball down field. Quarterback Matt McKay can make the short throws but has struggled with throws longer than 10 yards. After one downfield miss, to tight end Cary Angeline, Doeren benched McKay for a series in the second quarter.
That was part of the pregame script, Doeren said, but after Bailey Hockman came in for one series (and threw an interception that wasn’t actually his fault), McKay was at his best.
“I think it sparked Matt a little bit,” Doeren said.
McKay completed 10 of 13 passes for 127 yards and N.C. State had its two sustained scoring drives after Hockman had come in.
The spark was brief. McKay finished the first half 16 of 22 for 174 yards. He completed 1 of 8 passes in the second half for 1 yard. Hockman came in for the final drive (and completed one pass for 15 yards).
It had similar structure to the West Virginia trip. Since Ball State does not have West Virginia’s talent across the board, N.C. State was able to win this time. But that’s what Doeren’s teams do, they beat the teams they are supposed to (he’s 23-2 against teams from outside the Power 5).
Even in a down year for the ACC, N.C. State is going to have to figure out its second-half woes to win enough league games to make a sixth straight bowl. With only ACC games remaining, there’s no time left for the “blahs.”