Jakobi Meyers dropped a pass against Pittsburgh. Then N.C. State receivers Kelvin Harmon and Stephen Louis did the same.
Given the problems over the past decade by Wolfpack receivers with dropped passes, there was a sense of “Same old, N.C. State,” as the first half of the Pitt game unfolded.
But there was one person who wasn’t worried.
“It happens,” Wolfpack quarterback Ryan Finley said. “It was a couple of drops.”
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Finley didn’t lose faith in his receivers. Meyers responded with the go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter. Harmon had two long plays to set up a pair of touchdowns as N.C. State pulled away for the 35-17 road win.
In Harmon, Louis and Meyers, No. 14 N.C. State (6-1) enters a national spotlight game at No. 9 Notre Dame (6-1) on Saturday with one of the best receiving groups in the ACC. The playmaking trio has been instrumental in the Wolfpack’s six-game winning streak, including notable victories over Florida State and Louisville.
And that’s not by accident.
“Those guys are the hardest workers on the team, hands down,” Finley said.
But hard work is only part of their success story.
A lesson from Clemson
Dave Doeren had figured it out earlier in his tenure at N.C. State, but a home loss to Clemson in 2015 crystallized what would become a point of emphasis for the Wolfpack coach.
If Doeren’s program was ever going to catch up with Clemson or Florida State in the ACC, he had to get bigger and better receivers.
N.C. State had outplayed the Tigers, ranked No. 3 in the country and on their way to an ACC title and spot in the College Football Playoff, for 29 minutes in the first half.
Up 20-19 in the final minute of the half, N.C. State missed a field goal and gave the Tigers the ball back on their own 27-yard line. Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson needed only two plays – a 31-yard pass to Artavis Scott and a 42-yard pass to Charone Peake – to change the complexion of the game.
The Tigers then put the game out of reach with a 40-yard touchdown pass from Watson to Deon Cain late in the third quarter. Doeren couldn’t have asked for much more from his defenders on the touchdown plays by Peake and Cain. But Peake (6-3) and Cain (6-1) used their size to make tough plays.
Clemson won the game going away, 56-41.
“You can’t teach height or length,” Doeren said on the Signing Day after the 2015 season.
In that recruiting class (the sophomores or redshirt freshmen on the current roster), Doeren signed six receivers or tight ends who are 6-2 or taller. A seventh player in that class, Dylan Parham (6-4) has since converted to tight end.
Piling up the numbers
Harmon, 6-3 and 213 pounds, is turning into the star of that class. The sophomore from Palmyra, N.J. leads the Wolfpack with 547 receiving yards (on 36 catches). He has eight catches for 20 yards or more.
Those tough, indefensible plays Clemson made against State’s secondary in 2015? Harmon has routinely made them this season.
He had a 36-yard circus catch against Pitt that set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Jaylen Samuels early in the fourth quarter. He had a 48-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter of the 39-25 win over Louisville on Oct. 5.
He finished the Louisville game with a career-best 133 yards – one of four 100-yard receiving games this season. He’s on pace to become N.C. State’s first 1,000-yard receiver since 2003.
Louis (6-2, 217 pounds), a fourth-year junior, has 352 yards on 25 catches this season. He had strong games in home wins over Louisville (three catches, 99 yards) and Syracuse (four catches, 67 yards, touchdown).
Meyers (6-2, 203 pounds), a third-year sophomore and converted quarterback, has 309 yards on 26 catches. He had a game-changing 71-yard touchdown in the win at FSU on Sept. 23.
The common thread between those three receivers is their size and their ability to go up and make plays on deep shots down the field.
“We have complete confidence in those guys to go up and get those 50-50 balls, even when they’re covered,” Finley said.
The trio has seven touchdown catches between them. And, almost as important, has unofficially seven dropped passes on 130 targets.
Not just regular coaching
Doeren saw enough mistakes by the receivers in his first two seasons at N.C. State that he replaced receivers coach Frisman Jackson after the 2014 season. Doeren hired George McDonald to shape up the group.
McDonald demands a lot from his players, Doeren said.
“It’s not cool to be in (the receivers’ room) and not to be serious,” Doeren said. “It’s not cool to be in there and not play hard. It’s not cool to be in there and drop a pass.
“They take it very serious in that room. I think before, there was a lot of immature guys in that room. (McDonald) has created a culture that they’ve bought into.”
McDonald, in his third season at N.C. State, prefers to give the receivers the credit for their improvement. There were a lot of hours put in with strength coach Dantonio Burnette in the offseason. There was a lot of time on the practice field, without the coaches, catching extra passes and working on routes with Finley and backup quarterback Jalan McClendon.
“We almost had to calm those guys down,” Finley said. “Over the summer, they’ll just run themselves to the ground because of how good they want to be.”
McDonald chalks up the improvement by the group to being older and more mature.
“Everything that happens during the season is a really a testament to the work you put in before the season,” McDonald said.
But McDonald is more involved than he lets on.
“It’s not just regular coaching,” Harmon said. “He puts his heart and soul into it. He really wants us to succeed.”
That means staying with the receivers after practice, every day, for extra work and drills.
“That’s why we love him as a coach,” Louis said. “He’s there to make sure we’re getting better.”
They are getting better and helping N.C. State, alone in first place in the Atlantic Division, win more games in the process.
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio
NC State at Notre Dame
When: 3:30 p.m.
Where: Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend, Ind.