An emotional Dave Doeren said that “It’s been building” in his postgame interview after NC State knocked off #17 Louisville 39-25 Thursday night in primetime. He’s right. You could see it last year even in a 7-6 campaign dotted with disappointment. The foundation for a breakout season was in place, but ultimately the team had to deliver more than what ifs after close losses. A two-score win over reigning Heisman winner Lamar Jackson and crew will do just fine. And as B.J. Hill emphatically proclaimed after the FSU win: “We’re not done.” They weren’t, and we like what you’re building, Dave.
Lamar Jackson’s run at a repeat Heisman isn’t done; he won it last year on a team that lost three regular season games. But Louisville was knocked out of the ACC race for all practical purposes, like Germaine Pratt knocked Jackson on his can on the way to clinching the game with a pick six. The Pack are certainly still a heavy underdog with the likes of Clemson in the Atlantic, but at this point in the season you couldn’t ask for a better position than having a game in hand against the Cards and the Noles with Clemson at home. It’s October, people. And we can talk about titles rather than trying to chart a path to the Meineke Muffler Kumquat Bowl presented by Bitcoin.
Is it still building? Chiefly due to the fact that State could have won this one in a laugher had it not gotten in its own way a couple of times, I believe Thursday night was another brick in the wall rather than the ceiling. State turned it over in the red zone and missed a short field goal and still won by two scores. There could be even better football ahead.
Let’s go to the bullets.
· NC State was a mere one yard shy of having four 100-yard performers. Kelvin Harmon led the way with 133 yards on six catches and grabbed a TD. Jaylen Samuels added 104 yards on seven grabs. On the ground, Nyheim Hines recorded his second consecutive 100-yard game, galloping for 102 yards and two scores. Stephen Louis had just three receptions but they covered 99 yards. The official scorer really needs to figure out how to squeeze one more yard out of one of those grabs.
· The Pack forced a three-and-out on Louisville’s first possession to open the game, getting a raucous Carter-Finley crowd amp and hype from the get-go, and went on to hold Jackson and company scoreless in the first quarter. Jackson, to his credit, never backed down, but in the end his offense was held to 105 less total yards than it averaged coming in. The Cards were also held to 1.5 yards less than average per play and 15 fewer points.
· Though the defense wore down, understandably when you’re chasing the best player in college football all over the field, they managed to sack Jackson four times in the first half. Eurndraus Bryant, the biggest of the big nasties up front, was credited with two of those (though to me it looked like Jackson slipped away on one of those only to be finished off by Darian Roseboro). Bradley Chubb and Shawn Boone were credited with the other two sacks.
· Meanwhile, despite playing behind a banged up line that saw Terronne Prescod and Garrett Bradbury leave (but thankfully return) due to injury, Ryan Finley was once again tall and unencumbered in the pocket. He hasn’t been sacked in ACC play.
· Speaking of Finley, the redshirt junior is kind of good. He completed 20 of 31 attempts for 367 yards for a ridiculous average of 18.4 yards per completion. A 48-yard bomb to Harmon that saw the sophomore drag a helpless defender five yards on his way to the end zone helped that average, as did JaySam’s 79-yard catch and run.
· That Harmon TD came immediately after Doeren went for it on 4th and one from the Ville 49 in a scoreless game. Your gut was right, sir.
· After the Cards scratched to within 17-13 in the third quarter, the Hines Drive firmly put the Pack back in the driver’s seat. There was the double spin move on a check down pass that covered 11 yards, a burst through the left side of the line that nearly went the distance (he settled for a 45-yard gain), and he capped it off with a seven-yard scamper to pay dirt to put the Pack up 24-13. Oh by the way, Hines added a 48-yard kickoff return and amassed 222 all-purpose yards in sum.
· In addition to that long Hines return, the much-maligned Pack special teams made big plays on two conversion attempts, denying a two-point try and blocking an extra point with a long Chubb. Thanks to the coach who decided not to run Cheat Code on that two-point try.
· I mentioned the not allowing a sack superlative for the big uglies up front already, and additional kudos for absolutely caving in the entire defensive front on Reggie Gallaspy’s TD run that pushed the advantage to 32-19 in the fourth quarter. Hines contributed yet again by grabbing a two-point conversion after his backfield mate broke the line. State put up 153 yards and three rushing scores against a Cardinals defense that has been pretty solid against the run.
· In the end, State had 50 more total yards and averaged 1.2 more yards per play than a Louisville offense led by Lamar freakin’ Jackson and a good time was had by all.
· We were flagged six times to their 10 to end up +19 in penalty yardage.
· PRATT’S PICK SIX WHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
· Fortunately the defense kept it from being a shootout, but State entered the red zone twice in the first half and came away with a mere three points thanks to a turnover and some, uh, interesting play calling. Of course in the second half there was also the requisite missed field goal, so the Pack came away with points in just four of six trips inside the 20. It didn’t hurt in the end, but it could have.
· Fin, you’re a stud, dude. But howabout making an attempt to dive on the ball after you fumble it? It was the first time all season State failed to come away with points on its opening drive.
· You almost never see Nick McCloud during NC State football games despite the fact that he plays every down. The kid must be pretty good as he is so rarely targeted. Alas, he gave up a TD despite excellent coverage—even batting the ball away—but somehow Seth Dawkins batted it back to himself for the score. Fortunately, rather than an “oh crap” moment, the catch, in hindsight, showed just how hard it would be for Louisville to score on an inspired Pack defense.
· Right before the half a Louisville lineman was guilty of an obvious hold that allowed Jackson to escape and throw the ball away. Good lord if I had a nickel for every uncalled blatant hold! State then slumped into a ridiculous prevent defense with about 10 guys standing at the goal line, allowing Jackson to pass them into chip shot field goal range (and said field goal attempt was made to make it a one-score game).
· I didn’t like the timidity before the half, and I didn’t care for it late in the game when we went ultraconservative in a one-score game (run up the middle, run up the middle, incompletion, punt). Thanks again, Mr. Pratt, for taking care of business when the offense, hamstrung by play-not-to-lose play calling, could not.
· Louisville had two 100-yard receivers, Dawkins and Dez Fitzpatrick, neither of whom had ever eclipsed the 100-mark previously in their careers. I suppose the barrage of career best performances from opposing receivers is something we can laugh off as long as the W’s pile up, but sheesh.
· I got nothing. We’re 3-0 in the ACC, baby.
I could start worrying about how Pittsburgh is a trap game after this huge win, or about how the Irish are looking like the Irish again, or about Clemson. Oh god Clemson. Or I could caution against overconfidence at BC and at Wake Forest. I could even piss in your cornflakes by imagining a scenario where a 2-9 UNC squad derails our season on our home turf in the season finale. Heck, I could even play the what if game with that season-opening debacle against a clearly inferior USC-East squad.
Nah. Forget that whole paragraph above. The Pack should be back in the top 20 come Sunday for the first time since 2003. We’re a win away from bowl eligibility in early October instead of mid-November. October? November? It’s JUNE up in here. Doeren and his senior leaders, like Hill, will no doubt impose the 24-hour rule and start prepping to go 1-0 again next time, but I’m going to spin no apology necessary donuts in the Junebugging and dream big June dreams. Doeren’s built something to dream on.