Here we are again. NC State failed to reach bowl eligibility in its first attempt, dropping a 27-13 decision to Miami on senior day to guarantee another losing season under Dave Doeren in the ACC, and, as has been the case in most of the Pack's losses this season, it's easy to point to one play that turned the game. Well, lots of ones.
The most glaring "what if" this week was Bra'Lon Cherry's muffed punt in the fourth quarter when the score was 17-10 and the Pack had the momentum. The Canes capitalized with a field goal to take a two-score lead. Later, with the Pack back to within a touchdown, Jack Tocho was called for what seems like his 100th career pass interference when he was in good position but didn't get his head turned around to find the ball. Had he made any play on the underthrow, rather than plowing into the halting receiver, the hanky stays in the pocket and it's Pack ball. Instead, Miami punched it in three plays later to salt the game away.
Those late-game miscues stand out, but let's not forget Ryan Finley's pick in the end zone as State's red zone woes continued, or Stephen Louis's drop of a touchdown in the first half. Any one of the aforementioned plays goes the other way, and it's potentially a different outcome. Instead, State is all out of what ifs with one game to play.
A win over UNC would salvage the season to some degree, as a win over a rival with a bowl game on the line always does, but the Pack will once again play as the underdog and will be looking for just their second win in four years under Doeren against a bowl-bound conference opponent. Maybe the problem isn't that State is tantalizingly close to breaking through against a good team, but rather the problem is that the Pack are still an underdog against every decent team on the schedule in year four of the Doeren regime.
Let's swallow hard and take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly from the Wolfpack's home finale.
- It was tough sledding, as he managed just 76 yards on 20 carries, but senior Matt Dayes eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark for the season. Dayes, who ran for his eighth touchdown, is at 1,015 yards on the year. T.A. McClendon was the last Pack back to rush for a grand in a season, way back in 2002.
- Walk-on Brady Bodine had a day he'll remember; his 11-yard run on a gutsy fake punt call got State a first down, though it didn't ultimately lead to points.
- Kelvin Harmon's impressive freshman season continued with four catches for 68 yards. He's got 26 catches for 458 yards and a freshman record five TDs for the year. Louis shook off the drops—in addition to bungling a sure TD, he dropped a sure first down throw in the first half—to catch five balls for 70 yards. He's been a pleasant surprise with 29 catches for 533 yards for a team-high 18.4 yards per catch.
- The defense withered in the second half, but its first 30 minutes were stout against a Miami team with an NFL quarterback and a wealth of riches at the skill positions. The Canes had just three points in a first half that saw them feebly run for a mere 22 yards on 15 carries.
- Bradley Chubb and Darian Roseboro each recorded sacks in the first half. That's nine for Chubb and seven for Roseboro. Chubb is second nationally with 19.5 tackles for a loss. Start crossing your fingers that he's back for his senior year.
- Even with Miami coming alive for 24 second-half points, the defense held the Canes to half a yard under their per-play average per snap and more than a touchdown under their scoring average.
- They were some seriously low line drives that died just beyond the crossbar, but Connor Haskins remained perfect since wrestling back field goal duties from Kyle Bambard. Coming away with three is better than coming away with nothing.
- Cherry had a 31-yard punt return; too bad that big special teams play also yielded no points and that we'll remember his last, muffed return instead.
- Doeren elected to punt from Miami's 39 (with the predictable result of a touchback).
- Eight of State's first 15 plays went for negative or no yardage, and the offense failed to convert on its first seven third downs. There hasn't been a script planned to come out and successfully move the ball since Clemson.
- I counted five drops in the first half and six for the game. Those drops contributed to a rough afternoon for Finley, who completed just 20 of 44 passes for 210 yards, no TDs, and a pick. He did improve after a brutal first half that saw him average just 3.3 yards per attempt.
- The stadium had that half empty look after halftime again. Whether this exodus, and the attendant lack of crowd noise, negatively affected the defense is anyone's guess, but it's not a good look.
- To wit, Miami ran 17 times for 107 yards and three scores after the break, and no more QB sacks were forthcoming against a patchwork Canes' line that was dominated in the opening 30 minutes.
- A false start on Thaddeus Moss made the Pack settle for three during their fourth-quarter comeback bid. They needed two scores at the time, but of course you would rather have the TD. And that gaffe came after the phantom clip on Clark Eyers erased Dayes' spectacular TD run.
- Make no mistake, Miami's defense is very good, but State's 329 total yards were its second lowest output of the season in a game not played in a hurricane. The 4.5 yards per play was also the second worst non-hurricane total of the year.
- Despite Finley's inability to run the ball and his penchant for throwing INTs in the red zone (he had a second pick given back on a replay reversal), Jalen McClendon got just ONE snap at QB. Miami's linebackers didn't cheat on Dayes due to respecting McClendon's legs, and Dayes got the edge for about the only time in the game for an easy 5+ yard gain. I'm not calling for a QB change, but McClendon needs to be used more to open up the run game.
- Scrap the wildcat please. See above about using McClendon. Also, in a game where the base offense is underwhelming, why not also use Jakobi Meyers in some razzle dazzle?
- Jaylen Samuels was a non-factor. He headed to the locker room at one point due to a bum shoulder and is simply either hobbled or human. Or perhaps he's simply underutilized.
- -2 in turnover margin.
- All of that "what if" business from the opening. Scroll up and reread it if you have a strong stomach.
- The prospect of UNC ending your season.
We know now that Matt Canada's dismissal was not due to performance but rather due to rancor in the coaching ranks. After Canada's offense was among the top 10—6th, actually, according to Bill Connelly—rushing offenses in the nation last year despite a gaggle of attrition at the running back position, most of us decried that State fired the wrong coordinator. Dave Huxtable's defense certainly got its act together this year, so apologies to the old man on the staff, but I'm still searching for a reason justified by football performance to have jettisoned Canada. Meanwhile, Canada's offense hung 56 on Duke yesterday a week after beating Clemson. I said at the time that the Eli Drinkwitz gamble would either be brilliant or the beginning of the end for Doeren. Like a close game against a P5 opponent, this isn't breaking Doeren's way. Whether or not Debbie Yow will pull the plug on this experiment gone wrong is anyone's guess, but it's clear that the switch at coordinator cost this team a chance at a winning season. Canada's offense, coupled with this defense, might have even competed for an ACC title. That may seem like hyperbole, but what game other than Louisville would State have NOT won with a competent offense?
A loss to UNC to end the season would make the timing perfect, and the pill easy to swallow, Dr. Yow.