The morning (or mourning...never a more apropos time for that pun) after can take us two ways after NC State let slip away an opportunity to record arguably the best win in program history Saturday in Death Valley. The Wolfpack-induced depression in me wants to dwell on and lament the reality that this team should be 6-0, ranked comfortably within the top 25, and have the inside track on an ACC title game appearance. But the morning after optimist in me wants to believe that the program, as demonstrated by coming so dadgum close to knocking off a national title contender on its home turf, is heading in the right direction and on the cusp of a breakthrough to national relevance. It is a new day dawning, after all. Hug it out between gulps from the tequila fountain? Or celebrate progress (between gulps from the tequila fountain)?
Sure, before the season started we would probably have been OK with 4-2, 1-1. That would've been meeting expectations, though we would've figured the ECU game was a W and Notre Dame an L. But the Pack outgained the Pirates by nearly two yards a play and lost due to the inability to produce points in the kicking game and some questionable coaching decisions. And then Clemson. Three more missed field goals and a mile of penalties. Not even writing in complete sentences now. *gulps tequila*
But then Dave Doeren's squad has been tantalizingly close this fall to raising the program's expectations to heights not seen since 2002 when The Chest's squad opened 9-0 and climbed to 10th in the AP poll. To heights rarely seen, period; the program has been ranked in the AP top 10 a grand total of three times. Three years ago it was a 41-0 L to a Clemson team that's not nearly as good as this Clemson team. We're going places, baby! *gulps tequila*
Perhaps looking, as we do each week, at the good, the bad, and the ugly from game six will shed some light on how we should feel:
- The much-maligned NC State defense held Clemson to 5.4 yards per play, including a mere three yards per rush, after the Tigers hung 8.2 yards per play on Louisville and 8.3 ypp on Steve Addazio's dudes in the previous two weeks. (The offense, by the way, had an identical 5.4 ypp; we went toe-for-toe (or, uh, yard for yard)).
- The defense held the Tigers to 17 points in regulation, well under half their average coming in (38.7).
- Sometimes turnovers, especially fumble recoveries, involve a bit of luck, but Dravious Wright's two forced fumbles were not just good fortune. He physically dominated both plays to stop Clemson cold (and knock Wayne Gallman out cold).
- The defense, including Wright's second forced fumble, made two goal-line stands. Those stands were indicative of the effort and passion the Pack poured into this game. They wanted it more, and I'm not sure we've always seen that.
- Mike Stevens' pick six and Shawn Boone's long fumble return helped the Pack go +2 in turnover margin in a hostile environment.
- Perhaps we should throw out the Notre Dame game due to the conditions it was played in, but the Pack has allowed just 20 points in regulation over the last two games against teams that purportedly enjoy a significant talent gap. If the last two weeks aren't an aberration for Dave Huxtable's defense, the future truly looks bright for Doeren's Pack.
- The Pack posted the longest pass (39 yards) and run (17 yards) of the game which shows how successful the defense was at eliminating the big plays that are the bread and butter of the Tiger offense.
- Matt Dayes continues to produce. He went over 100 yards for the fifth time in six games this season, rushing 22 times for 106 yards and a score. He's just 331 yards shy of 1,000. Dayes added three catches for 27 yards.
- Jaylen Samuels has seven TDs on the year but hasn't produced nearly as much yardage from scrimmage as expected. Jay-Sam had just 191 yards through the air coming in but grabbed eight balls for an even 100 yards against the Tigers. State needs more of that going forward from the J-train.
- Ryan Finley wasn't spectacular, completing just 50% of his throws, but he continues to look the part of cool and competent leader, and, remember, he's had just nine college starts. It was an impressive effort against an excellent defense (#2 nationally in S&P, actually) on the biggest stage Finley has seen yet.
- State could've been up 14-0 in the first quarter but Nyheim Hines was just barely tripped up right before he could break free for a score on the opening drive, and Jay-Sam was underthrown on the trickeration pass from Gavin Locklear or it's a TD rather than merely a healthy chunk play.
- The Pack outgained the Tigers 154-96 in the opening frame yet trailed 3-0.
- At times the game reminded me of the frustrating two-game stretch against Louisville and Virginia Tech last season when Matt Canada simply abandoned the run game. The Pack need balance to win but threw the ball 46 times to just 28 runs (when factoring sacks as pass calls rather than rushes). Dayes was the only running back on the roster to carry the ball; he probably should've carried it more, and Reggie Gallaspy perhaps should've gotten a chance to wear down the Clemson defense with his bruising style.
- Finley tossed his first two picks; however, to be fair, the first one came on a blatantly obvious yet uncalled pass interference penalty. The second pick was just a terrible throw at the worst possible time. That ball had to be where only the receiver had a shot.
- The defense, for all of its positives in the game, could not contain Deshaun Watson despite forcing Clemson to be one dimensional. The Heisman hopeful threw for 378 yards.
- Hines and Jay-Sam not scoring in the first would've been mitigated had the Pack finished off the drives with points. Instead, eight first quarter penalties conspired to kill both marches. NC State ultimately committed 13 penalties for 120 yards compared to Clemson' five for 40. You've got enough to contend with in Death Valley without going -80 in penalty yards.
- State reached the red zone five times and scored just twice.
- Kyle Bambard. My heart aches for you, man.
So, how do you feel the morning after? Frustrated and depressed, as NC State fans are wont to do? Or pleased that the program is slowly but steadily on schedule? I suppose we don't have to pick one; I know I feel a lot of both. I suppose the rest of the season is ultimately what will define it, and I hope like hell these guys can get off the mat and find a way to duplicate this effort next Saturday as the murderous schedule churns on in Louisville. You deserved better yesterday, NC State. Above all, I am proud.