When NC State head coach Dave Doeren was a defensive assistant coach at Kansas from 2002-05, the last year of which he was a co-coordinator, Texas Tech was in the midst of its breakout under an upstart head coach named Mike Leach.
Back then, the Big 12 was an actual 12-team conference divided into two separate divisions. Kansas was in the Northern Division, and Texas Tech in the Southern. In the last two years of Doeren’s time at Kansas, the two teams became cross-divisional opponents for a home-and-home.
The 2005 version of the Red Raiders under Leach was one of the best in school history, rising to as high as No. 10 in the Associated Press Poll and going 9-3 overall after losing to Alabama by three points in the Cotton Bowl. That team beat Doeren and Kansas, 30-17, in what was actually one of Texas Tech’s lowest scoring outputs of the season.
The year before, the Red Raiders squeaked out a 31-30 victory over the Jayhawks before ending the season with a win over fourth-ranked California in the Holiday Bowl.
Over 15 years later, you can excuse Doeren for not remembering which quarterback Kansas faced. In 2004 it was Sonny Cumbie. A year later Cody Hodges, backed up by Graham Harrell, who a year later would begin his record-setting turn as the starter of Leach’s air raid offense.
“They were all just throwing for 5,000 yards every year,” Doeren half-joked.
For the first time since those days, Doeren is about to face Leach again.
After an unceremonious departure from Texas Tech ended his time in Lubbock in 2009 with an 84-43 record over 10 seasons, Leach resurfaced at Washington State in 2012. In eight years there he turned around the program, finishing No. 10 in the country in 2018 with a 10-2 record.
After going 55-47 for WSU, Leach is now at Mississippi State, testing his offensive system at the highest echelon of college football, the SEC. The Bulldogs went 4-7 in year one under Leach, and after a furious rally from down 34-14 with 13 minutes to go is 1-0 this season following a 35-34 home win over Louisiana Tech on Saturday. Now Mississippi State will host NC State this Saturday.
Doeren knows the 7 p.m. kickoff on ESPN2 against an SEC opponent on the road represents a great chance for his Wolfpack program, and it comes against a university in which Doeren sees similar traits to NC State, citing both schools’ passion and blue collar approach.
“You go play against a coach like Mike Leach,” Doeren noted. “He’s done nothing but win everywhere he’s coached. In a stadium that I’ve been reading about … just the fanfare, the noise, 61,000 but it sounds like 100,000, like the whole thing.
“It’s going to be an awesome opportunity. And then we’re on ESPN. So great audience for people to watch the game.”
Figuring out how to deal with the cowbells and crowd noise, something that was not an issue in 2020 because of COVID-19 restrictions, is only one obstacle facing Doeren and the Pack. Defending Leach’s offense is still just as challenging now as it was when Doeren was at Kansas.
Doeren noted that Leach has the potential to call any of his array of pass plays regardless of down and distance, and that Leach simplifies the attack so that his players have it nailed down.
“I think he’s got a great system,” Doeren said. “He understands the ins and outs, and as a defensive coach, you’ve got to have answers, and you can’t be one dimensional. You have to be able to do a lot of different things against them.
“Because if you sit in one thing, he can just pick you apart.”
It was a tough weekend for the ACC. A Wolfpack win at Mississippi State is not likely to go a long ways for redemption for the conference, but Doeren would be amiss if he did not bring up that angle to his players, too.
“It’s an opportunity for us to continue to earn respect,” Doeren said. “Obviously, playing on the road against a team like that from their league. If you find a way to win that game, it’s good for your team. It’s good for your program. So, our guys are aware that we’re playing an SEC team.
“It won’t be something I talk about five days in a row, I can tell you that, but it is something worth the conversation.”
Mississippi State though presents a lot of challenges beyond the air raid. Doeren noted that they run various stunts in their 3-3-5 defense that can put teams in a bind if their offense gets into long down and distance scenarios. The Bulldogs also have a versatile running back in Ja’quavious Marks who is dangerous catching the football and on the occasional runs he may receive.
Mississippi State is “massive,” Doeren said, on both lines, and the coach suspects they may have found something in their come-from-behind win over Louisiana Tech.
“I thought they showed a lot of grit in their game,” Doeren said. “They were down 20, and 13 minutes left in the fourth quarter. I know they didn’t play well up until that point, but they sure played well the final 13 minutes. Their quarterback [Will Rogers] showed a lot of poise bringing them back.”
• Coming off a Thursday game, the team met as it regularly would have on Sunday to go through the process of putting the previous day’s contest “to bed.”
Players and coaches, the latter after a night of recruiting Friday, all had Saturday off. Doeren used the time to watch the Wisconsin-Penn State, Mississippi State-Louisiana Tech and Clemson-Georgia games.
The coaches then reconvened Sunday to get a head start for prep on the Bulldogs. Players resumed their normal Monday-Saturday schedule for game week.
• Doeren cautioned against reading too much into the first week of the season, especially when it came to the results across the ACC.
“There’s a lot of football left,” Doeren said. “We talked as a team the other day about it, and we can’t get too high with our win. And in those teams that lost, they’re going to get better.
“I think there was some good games played. You had UNC-Virginia Tech at Virginia Tech’s a good football game. It was a one possession game. [Sunday] night, another one possession game with Florida State-Notre Dame. There’s good football games, Clemson-Georgia was a heck of a football game.
“It wasn’t like [the ACC] went out and laid an egg. I mean, there were a bunch of competitive games. And we were one possession away as a league of making a bunch of good things happen.”
• Maturity has been a focal point for NC State this offseason, especially on the field and avoiding silly penalties.
Doeren was disappointed in an offside flag, but otherwise pleased and noted on penalty on the offense was questionable after it did not show up on tape upon further review.
“I thought we were good on game night,” Doeren added. “We didn’t have any after the whistle type stuff or guys were doing things the refs were worried about.
“Yeah, we celebrated interceptions. But that was us as a team, not us taunting anyone. And I thought our guys did a nice job understanding how to have fun and do it within the rules.”
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