Preseason, we thought NC State's schedule was going to be murderous. Now that we're at the end of the regular season, we can see that it was every bit as difficult as anticipated. NC State faced six teams slotted in the top 35 of the Football Outsiders F/+ rankings, including four in the top 16. Going 2-4 against that group with three of the four losses coming down to critical plays in the fourth quarter—a missed field goal, a dropped interception, a muffed punt—is more encouraging than discouraging. NC State was right there with the best programs in the country.
There wasn't much middle ground in the schedule, as the remaining six opponents are all ranked outside the top 70. Going just 4-2 against the bottom of the schedule, again with losses coming down to excruciating fourth quarter gaffes, was more discouraging than encouraging. It is what ultimately doomed the Pack to fighting for their bowl lives, and perhaps their coach's job, in their season finale against rival North Carolina. And fight they did. Dave Doeren's second win in Chapel Hill in two tries not only bought the Pack and senior leaders like Matt Dayes another football game, it also changed the calculus on his future in Raleigh.
The salve of ruining senior day at Carolina, eliminating the Heels' feint hope of an ACC title game appearance, and pulling the rug out from under their hopes of a 10-win season, masks a lot of earlier misfortune. The Pack's ability to get off the mat after a season wrought with so much "almost" and keep fighting for their program and their coach, as calls for his head built to a crescendo, was truly remarkable. You could point to a dozen different times this year where it would have been easy to call "ballgame" on this regime, but the players and the coaches never saw it that way, stayed together, and finally finished one. Kudos to all of them. Resiliency is a good look, especially when it nets a North Carolina loss to close the campaign.
But it ain't all rainbows and unicorns; going 2-5 in games that were decided in the fourth quarter isn't good enough, but beating the sheep in their pasture two straight and getting the club to three straight bowls will do, for now. Doeren has repeated the mantra that first you lose by a lot, then a little, then you win by a little, and then you win by a lot as he's talked about the slow process of building a program. And let's not forget how empty the cupboard was that he inherited. Coach, you won the most important one. We expect more winning next year, whether by a little or by a lot, with what will be your deepest and most experienced team yet.
And, with that out of the way, your good, bad, and ugly bullets from the finale:
- Much like two years ago in Chapel Hill, NC State was the more physical team, punishing Larry Fedora's defense to the tune of 259 yards on the ground and three rushing scores.
- Dayes led the way with 104 yards and two TDs, but the running game was bolstered in large part by contributions from Reggie Gallaspy and Jalen McClendon, who combined for 108 yards on 17 carries. Four Pack runners had a rush of at least 10 yards and Jaylen Samuels found pay dirt on a jet sweep.
- Dayes is one of the all-time greats for this school, but (as I've been screaming for weeks) he (and the rushing offense as a whole) is much better when the running game consists of more than hand it to Dayes every time.
- Samuels took a lateral and flung one up to Stephen Louis for a 59-yard TD. That was a brilliant call against an undisciplined defense, especially given how much attention Samuels commands.
- Louis finished with four catches for 124 yards. He completed the regular season with a team-high 657 yards receiving on just a shade under 20 yards per catch (19.9) after missing all of last season due to injury.
- Ryan Finley didn't have a big game, what with the run game churning up and spitting out Heels left and right, but his escape of pressure and throw on the run to Jakobi Meyers was a thing of beauty. It also led to what ultimately held up as the winning score.
- The defense had nothing for Ryan Switzer (13 catches for 171 yards) but otherwise held the Heels in check. Carolina's 21 points were 13 less than its average, and the Heels per play average was close to a yard under their norm. I'd just like to wish Switzer, a senior, the best of luck in his future. Buh-bye, Ryan.
- Carolina came in tied with State as the 24th hardest team to sack, giving up 1.46 per game, but the Pack bothered Mitch Trubisky more often than not and BJ Hill and Mike Stevens got him to the turf for a pair of sacks. The Heels were also flagged for holding on several occasions. State won this one in the trenches on both sides of the ball.
- Further evidence of said trench domination: State threw Carolina for a loss six times; Carolina caught State for a loss but twice.
- The Pack was able to run the clock out at the end with McClendon at quarterback. I love the way we run the football with him at the helm; even knowing what was coming and with the game on the line, Carolina couldn't get a stop.
- You would rather not need to tip your cap to the punter, but AJ Cole was excellent in his five booting efforts, averaging 47 yards with two inside the 20. Switzer, who has something like 400 career punt return TDs, was only able to return one kick and for not too much damage (13 yards). Bye-bye Ry guy.
- State took the high road when the Heels started chirping, pushing, and showing their collective asses. It would've been easy to lose a player during the bench-clearing mess, but it was Carolina who went down a man after Jalen Dalton threw a punch (right in front of an official, you moron). Dalton showed serious respect for Fedora, dragging his coach behind him as he jumped into the fray. (Also, Terronne Prescod ain't skeerd.)
- The penalty that negated the flea-flicker pass.
- The phantom late hit out of bounds penalty. (Though, all in all, I thought it was a well-officiated game and was pleasantly surprised to see a few pivotal calls go against Carolina, especially the ruling on the onside kick. It appears that Fedora's players weren't even aware of the rule that you can't block downfield until the ball travels 10 yards, as they were trying to bury every State player in the vicinity. Cheating bastards.)
- This game didn't have to get interesting; the fumble that led to Carolina's first points shunted the snowballing momentum and perhaps prevented an early knockout and another 35-7 result like we enjoyed in '14.
- Pass protection was good for the most part, but Will Richardson must have thought there was a back in the backfield when he blocked no one and let Carolina's end come free for the team's only sack allowed. The backfield was empty, and Finley got buried.
- Jay-Sam's drop that prevented a first down was another play that contributed to keeping Carolina in it. I know at that point a lot of us had that "We've seen how this movie ends" feeling. Samuels finished the regular season with a less than stellar (by his standards) 648 total yards and 10 scores after going for 965 and 16 last year, but he does have a 925.6 QB rating! (Note that he averaged right about eight yards a touch in both years, so it's not that he's been less effective, just less utilized.)
- Kyle Bambard and Connor Haskins are a combined 9-for-17 this season, and Haskins' makes have often just barely cleared the crossbar. Yet, even with these field goal woes, Doeren again played for three at the end of the half against Carolina. At Clemson there was time to get closer, even to try to go for a TD, and the team went into conservative leave it up to the kicker/don't let the other team get the ball back mode with predictable results. Against Carolina, Doeren was again more concerned with not letting the Heels get the ball back, despite how well the defense was playing, than managing the clock for a TD. Another field goal was, predictably, yanked and the door was left open for a Carolina comeback that came too close for comfort in the second half. I don't know if it's more frustrating that Doeren would employ this conservative strategy that flies in the face of everything he preaches about playing physical football in the first place—as in both the Clemson and Carolina games the offense was moving the ball effectively and had momentum at the time—or if it's more frustrating that Doeren didn't learn from his first mistake. Good god, man. Most of us want to like you. Nearly all of us want you to be successful. Grow a pair! You've earned a reprieve, but your clock management and decision making has to improve if you want to elevate this program.
Phew. Let me catch my breath here. It's nice to be able to rant AND taste victory anyway for once, especially when that victory comes against Carolina.