Here we are again. NC State’s season will be defined not by 10 wins or a conference championship or some other historical feat. NC State’s season will not be a program-redefining breakthrough. NC State’s season will not fulfill its promise. NC State’s season, yet again, all comes down to appeasing the fan base by beating UNC. Stop me if you’ve heard this before: “Well, at least we beat UNC.”
Each loss has pulled the bar down further. USC-East…forget undefeated. Notre Dame…forget the playoff. Clemson…forget the ACC. Wake Forest…forget 10 wins. Maybe none of those goals were ever realistic, but NC State outgained its opponents in three of those losses and lost in large part to self-inflicted wounds. With the bar further lowered after losing 30-24 in Winston-Salem, a win over a UNC team suddenly showing a pulse seems anything but certain.
Do we take 8-4 (6-2) back in August? Most probably would. But, having seen the season play out, that finish will be a little deflating. Lose to UNC and 2017 becomes a disappointment on the level of the 2012-13 basketball campaign when preseason hype had us convinced that we were back to national relevancy after so many years wandering in the desert. I really can’t even process that right now, so let’s look back, as we do, on the good, bad, and ugly from game 11:
· There’s a lot to like in the box score. The Pack ran 94 plays and put up 502 yards of total offense while holding the ball for over 41 minutes.
· Ryan Finley threw for 327 yards. He’s eclipsed the 300-yard mark five times.
· Kelvin Harmon caught eight balls for 105 yards. He’s got six 100-yard games and needs just 28 more yards to reach 1,000. His tackle-breaking catch and run on a 4th and three conversion set up Kyle Bambard’s game-knotting field goal in the fourth quarter.
· Jakobi Meyers grabbed 10 balls for 90 yards.
· Jaylen Samuels filled in nicely for a nicked up Nyheim Hines, gaining 50 yards on just seven carries for an average of 7.1 per run. Samuels, who has a catch in a school record tying 39 straight games, added 23 yards receiving. He rewarded Dave Doeren’s call to go on 4th and two from the 11 in the first quarter by scampering 11 yards for a score that tied the game at 7-7.
· With Stephen Louis out with an ankle injury, two freshmen stepped up in the receiving game and a blast from the past had a big catch. True freshman Emeka Emezie caught five balls for 67 yards. Redshirt freshman CJ Riley added a pair of catches. Redshirt senior JuMichael Ramos, whose career has been slowed by injury, had a big 19-yard catch to move the chains that culminated in Emezie’s first career TD.
· Emezie’s score tied the game at 21 in the third quarter, and the Pack, for once, actually played well immediately after intermission. Perhaps the third-quarter blues are a thing of the past.
· There was not one single iteration of the blasted wildcat nor a backfiring gadget play.
· Defensively, a stout performance up front against the run limited Wake to just 87 yards on 28 carries (3.1 yards per rush). The Pack had four guys gain 35 yards or more and totaled 175 yards on the ground; conversely, Matt Colburn was the only Deacon to gain more than 35 yards (and it was just 38).
· Mike Stevens got a hand in to break up a John Wolford pass that Shawn Boone picked off; it was just Wolford’s fourth INT of the year.
· The “D” dropped Wake for a loss on six of its 56 snaps. (In contrast, the Deacs dropped the Pack for a loss just five times in 94 snaps.)
· Led by Kentavius Street’s six stops, defensive linemen held three of the top four spots in tackles, and that is always a good sign for the defense. Justin Jones had five tackles, including two for a loss, and Bradley Chubb also made five stops.
· Wake managed to convert on third down just three times in 11 tries.
· As usual, there is little to like about the special teams performance, but Vernon Grier hustled his fanny off to ensure that Hines’ muffed punt didn’t turn into disaster. And the Pack blocked an extra point that could have been the difference in the game.
· The defense held a veteran offense coming off a 60-plus-point outburst to just nine second half points, but Wake went through the defense like a hot knife through butter in the first half. Maddeningly, the entire unit seemed to go comatose on every play action, giving far too much respect to the run, and in turn never bothered Wolford in the opening half.
· Having all day to throw allowed Wolford to pick apart Chris Ingram, a true freshman and surprise starter at nickel. Ingram drew the assignment of Tabari Hines, who eclipsed 100 yards receiving in the first half. The junior previously had only three 100-yard games in his career (including last year in Raleigh) and ended up with a career high 139 yards and three TDs. All of the scores came against the true freshman.
· Ingram’s egregious late hit on Cam Serigne about five yards out of bounds set up Hines’ third and game-winning TD. But, by that point, should he have even been on the field?
· I don’t want to “hate” on Ingram too much. The coaches believed him to be our best cover nickel and that putting Boone back at safety would improve tackling in the secondary. Doeren said that Ingram “wasn’t ready” after the game. If the guy earned playing time in practice, by all means reward him. But it was readily apparent that he wasn’t ready early in the game and yet the staff made no adjustments.
· Ingram’s penalty was one of three 15-yard infractions on State, which finished -24 in penalty yards for the game.
· Nyheim Hines is hurt again and was ineffective before he left the game (just 3.3 yards per carry and a muffed kick and punt return). I’m not sure he is big enough to withstand the rigors of being a feature back and wonder if the team wouldn’t be better served limiting his touches at RB in the future to try to keep his dynamic speed on the field in the return game.
· While it was nice not to see trickeration end in a negative play or wildcat runs banging straight into the line for a minimal gain, Eli Drinkwitz still calls too many wide receiver screens. They are going nowhere, and each one seems to be an eyelash away from total disaster. The goal line is straight ahead.
· Down six in the fourth quarter, State took its sweet time on the drive that culminated in a goal line fumble, leaving it with too little time to try to seriously mount a second game-winning drive. The possession ate over six minutes of game time as the play clock slipped into single digits on nearly every snap. That’s terrible game management. With just another 30 seconds or so on the last drive, State has time to do something other than fling it up for grabs on the game’s last meaningful snap.
· NC State managed just 3.4 points per trip inside the 40, and that’s how you lose when you have a 502-334 yard advantage in total offense. Well that and the troubling -2 in turnover margin. This team can “win” the box score and lose the game like no other.
· Finley and Harmon had nice games in the box score, but Finley twice missed receivers behind the defense for what would’ve been walk-in scores. For as good as he’s been, Finley still struggles with the deep ball. Harmon had a pair of particularly ugly drops, including taking one off the helmet. Get your hands up and high point the football! The throw that doinked off Harmon’s helmet would’ve converted a 3rd and 14 in the third quarter at a time when the Pack had the momentum in a tie game; instead, Wake got great field position and put three points on the board to take the lead.
· Emezie’s goal line fumble was not ugly. The guy had a breakout game. He could’ve had three scores but Finley missed him for a TD just before the half and, after making a great move to shed a couple of defenders, the officials ruled he was stripped just before the ball broke the plane on what could’ve been the game-winning drive. Had the officials ruled him in, there was no video evidence to suggest otherwise. But the officials’ call wasn’t ugly. The ugly in this bullet is that, in a game that so often hinges on replay, there’s not a goddam camera on the goal line. HOW IS THERE NOT A CAMERA ON THE GOAL LINE?
Fumble is the reality we have to live with this morning after, but the Emezie play will join “TA was in!” in the legendary Wolfpack lore of almost. And we’ll never know the truth. What we do know is that this season was almost special.