North Carolina State's first season under Dave Doeren is slipping away amid a series of injuries and missed opportunities.
N.C. State (3-5) is 0-5 in Atlantic Coast Conference play for the first time in more than five decades. The Wolfpack's trip to Duke on Saturday marks the start of a four-game run to close the regular season that will either help Doeren build momentum with a bowl run or sink his team even deeper into the hole.
"We just need to make more plays," Doeren said Monday. "We have four more games to do that. That's where we're at as a program."
N.C. State is off to its worst ACC start since going 0-6 in league play during the 1959 season, according to STATS. It had reached .500 in league play in four of the past five seasons with three straight bowl trips, but Doeren's team has won just once in two months.
The Wolfpack suffered a fourth straight loss over the weekend, falling 27-19 to North Carolina in the Tar Heels' first win in Raleigh since 2005. That left N.C. State as one of two teams still winless in ACC play, joining Virginia (2-7, 0-5).
Doeren, who had a 23-4 record in two seasons at Northern Illinois before arriving here to replace fired coach Tom O'Brien, is still pushing his team to reverse course.
"I came here to build this place into the best program I can," Doeren said. "My goal is to be an ACC champion and compete for national championships. I didn't come in here knowing exactly what the roster contained, I didn't come in here knowing how many injuries we would have. But I did come in here knowing that I'm going to get it done."
There have been no shortages of factors in the Wolfpack's struggles. The year started with promise when Arkansas graduate transfer Brandon Mitchell led the Wolfpack on touchdown drives on the first two possessions of the season, but he limped off the field after the third series with a broken left foot.
That injury kept him off the field for five straight games and was the first in a series that chipped away at the depth for a young team featuring just 11 returning starters. The injuries included losing top offensive lineman Rob Crisp for the season to a concussion in the second game and defensive lineman Darryl Cato-Bishop for three games with a sprained ankle, while receiver Bryan Underwood was recently lost for the year with a broken collarbone.
Mitchell's absence also hindered the development of the team's new no-huddle offense, which has shown up in the team's struggles in the red zone.
N.C. State has scored 10 touchdowns - tied for the lowest in the 14-team ACC - on 25 trips inside the opponent's 20-yard line. Against the Tar Heels, the Wolfpack twice settled for field goals on drives that pushed inside the 10.
The Wolfpack's 19 points against the Tar Heels marked their best showing in an ACC game all year.
"It's been difficult," receiver Rashard Smith said of avoiding frustration. "That's part of football. You're going to have ups and downs but you're always going to have adversity. If we just come out and just prepare to win each game, we'll be fine. We have four games left. We can still turn it around and have a good season."