Heavy sigh. NC State outgained Clemson, even slightly edging the Tigers in yards per play, but a special teams score, a minus-one in turnover margin, and a confounding replay reversal—among other things—conspired to hand the Pack a 38-31 defeat on homecoming. Rather than all but sewing up a first appearance in the ACC title game, State will need to win out and hope for a Clemson loss to Florida State in order to play for a league title.
It’s been a rough couple of weeks, with Notre Dame dashing the college football playoff dream and Clemson wrestling away the coveted control of your own destiny in the ACC, but the Pack can still go 9-3 against a difficult schedule and post a 10-win season for just the second time in school history by adding a bowl win (or, less likely, an ACC title win).
To be honest, even though the idea behind it is to recap the game after emotions have settled a bit, sometimes I pen the “morning after” feature after the game and set it to publish the following morning. Not this time. Not sure there’s ever been a game that required a night’s sleep more than this one. Even now, as the sun rises, it’s hard to take the 30,000-foot view of this game, this season. Winning the last three would do a lot to assuage that bitter taste, but in the end I think having a successful remainder of the season will only make coming up short—and the special teams ineptitude that heavily contributed to coming up short—against Clemson (and USC-East in the opener) stick out all the more.
Still, win. Let’s get back to winning. Winning was good.
Here’s the good, the bad, and the long list of downright ugly from game nine.
· After a dreadful performance in South Bend, State just scored the most points and gained the most yards this season against a Clemson defense that came in ranked 3rd in S&P+.
· Clemson’s passing defense was the best in the nation according to S&P+, but no one told Ryan Finley, who completed 62% of his passes for 338 yards and three scores. Finley’s first 15 throws were completed, the streak finally broken by a drop.
· The offensive line allowed just one sack to a defense averaging four per game, and it was a fluke as Finley slipped down on the play rather than being forced down by contact.
· Kelvin Harmon and Jakobi Meyers torched the Tiger secondary, hauling in 155 and 105 yards receiving, respectively. Harmon, who put State up 7-0 early on a 40-yard hookup that saw him carry a guy on his back seven yards into the end zone, has 799 yards now on the season and is a good bet to go over 1,000.
· Kudos to Finley who hung in and took a shot while delivering the early TD to Harmon.
· With Nyheim Hines limited due to injury, the Pack pieced together a running back by committee approach that at times gashed the Tigers. Clemson came in allowing just 3.2 yards per carry, but Hines, Jaylen Samuels, Reggie Gallaspy, and “Wheels” Finley each had at least one run of 13+ yards. Samuels rushed for a score, just the 4th the Tigers have allowed on the ground all year.
· In sum, State amassed 153 yards on the ground, averaging 4.5 yards per tote.
· Dave Doeren actually didn’t punt inside the 40 for once on fourth down, a decision that eventually led to the Samuels TD run.
· JaySam managed just 44 yards from scrimmage but also made a sweet TD snag on a ball he reached out and batted to himself. Samuels is now second in NC State history with 43 career touchdowns, passing the great Stan Fritts. He’ll need eight more to match Ted Brown.
· Defensively, there unfortunately was little to note, though Bradley Chubb continued to be disruptive with 1.5 tackles for a loss.
· The defense did limit explosive plays—with the one huge exception being Tavien Feaster’s 89-yard backbreaker—allowing a total of just four (explosive play being defined as a run of 12+ yards or a pass of 16+ yards). Conversely, the Pack put up 14 explosive plays offensively and enjoyed nearly a 10-minute advantage in time of possession. You might think you would’ve won with that kind of spread.
· Kyle Bambard made a kick! Good for him. No matter what happens from here, I hope he gets the call from now on.
· While Hines did show some life on one series, he was basically just a decoy if he was in the game at all. Not having that dynamic threat on special teams hurts even more than not having him on offense, and of course the injury had to come during the most difficult stretch of the season. Justin Jones tried to go but was also unable to stay on the field.
· While the defense didn’t give up the big play—again, with that one exception—it also could not find its way to the sidelines. Clemson converted 7 of 16 third downs and both of its fourth down go-for-its. State was 3-for-13 and 2-for-3 in those categories. Clemson converted a 3rd and 10 and a 3rd and eight on its first offensive touchdown drive.
· Clemson scored three TDs and a FG on FOUR trips inside the red zone. That’s 100%. State scored three TDs and a FG on FIVE trips inside the red zone. That’s 80%. And that doesn’t account for the last drive as it ended just short of the red zone thanks to the procedure penalty.
· A week after getting flagged 12 times, the most the Pack were penalized since last year’s OT loss to Clemson, State saw the hankies six more times and racked up a -46 disadvantage in yards penalized. The Tigers were flagged just thrice. I’m not making an argument one way or another as to the merit of the officiating but rather pointing out that it’s tough to overcome a 46-yard difference in penalty yards against the national champions. And the yardage lost has to be factored in as well; the illegal procedure is just a five-yard flag, but it negated a big gain that would’ve set up first and goal.
· Chubb’s late hit was just completely unnecessary and led to a Clemson field goal. He was very lucky not to get flagged for his terrible towel prank. Dude is a stud, but immaturity is an issue.
· The sequence where JaySam was hurt on the blown up screen, followed by the reversal of Meyers’ catch that would’ve moved the chains on 3rd and 14, was bad on so many levels. We’ve had so little success on bubble screens and they’re just a bad play against Clemson’s speed, and of course there was absolutely NOTHING in that replay to offer indisputable evidence that the call on the field was wrong. If anything, the replay showed control and two, if not three, feet inbounds.
· If someone in the replay office, John Swofford peering in over his shoulder, radioed to reverse that call in an effort to save Clemson’s playoff hopes then that crap goes from bad to the ugliest bullet of them all…yeah maybe I need another night’s sleep before writing this. Or maybe the fix was in. You decide.
· JaySam had a TD and one big run in the wildcat, but for the most part wildcat runs have been stuffed time and time again when we’ve gone to it, and we went to it on 3rd and a deuce from the 50, late in the third quarter, trailing by three. It was stuffed. To me the “ugly” here was that play call, more so than the ensuing decision to punt on 4th and one. In hindsight, the punt decision is magnified since Feaster went 89 yards on the next play to put the Pack in desperation mode. A better play call on third down hopefully takes the punt decision out of Dave’s hands. Predictable runs, rather than letting Finley throw after play action, have doomed drives for two straight weeks.
· Hunter Renfrow was in the grasp of Tim Kidd-Glass on 4th and five, about a foot or two short of the line to gain, but escaped to move the chains. Kelly Bryant put Clemson back up by two scores a few plays later.
· As good as Finley was, two terrible throws stick out: the who was that even intended for INT after the slip sack that led to the TD described in the previous bullet, and missing Harmon for a long TD when the sophomore had slipped 10 yards behind the defense.
· In turnover margin, NC State is +9 in its six wins and -3 in its three losses. As much as anything, that pick turned the game.
· And of course the truly “special” teams. Outkicking the coverage + losing all sense of coverage lanes + porous tackling led to Ray-Ray McCloud’s TD return. And Carson Wise missed yet another field goal. He’s just 6-for-12 on the year. State’s opponents are 14-for-18.
The Wolfpack had an opportunity to gain separation early, but the punt return and crucial long pickups on third down kept Clemson in it. The Wolfpack had an opportunity to win despite letting Clemson weather the storm early, but Airius Moore (of all people) blew his gap assignment on Feaster’s score, Finley threw a terrible pick, and Kidd-Glass couldn’t make a play in space, among so many other mistakes. In the end, the team that made the fewest mistakes won, and that’s going to make this one sting for us, and even more so for the coaches and players in the locker room, for a long time.
I hate to have to type “there’s still a lot to play for” again this week, but it’s still true. But regardless of how the team responds, this is going in the books as another “what if” season for Doeren derailed by close losses and special teams ineptitude.