I had too much concern. The list of reasons to worry was a long one: Bradley Chubb opting to forego the game due to injury risk; fellow seniors Tony Adams and Mike Stevens sitting out due to injury; the notion—among us for sure if not the team—that NC State was a bit letdown by its bowl destination; Arizona State enjoying a geographic advantage; and, last but not least, the expectation that the Sun Devils would be motivated to send their lame duck coach, Todd Graham, out with a win all combined to make the 83rd edition of the Sun Bowl seem like a trap. In the end the only concern was whether or not the Wolfpack would eclipse 50 points on their way to winning their third bowl in four tries under Dave Doeren. The Wolfpack did not disappoint, downing the Sun Devils 52-31 in a game that should ensure the program’s first top 25 finish since 2010.
The convincing win gave the Wolfpack a nine victory season for just the third time in the last 23 years and momentum heading in to 2018 for a program that appears to be on the rise. Like with any blowout, the good far outweighed the bad (and ugly).
· Jaylen Samuels broke a record, becoming NC State’s all-time leading receiver with 202 career catches. JaySam caught seven balls for 46 yards to pass legend Jerricho Cotchery.
· Samuels added 20 yards rushing, including a score, and scooped up an onside kick and just missed housing it to set up the Pack’s sixth rushing touchdown of the day, which went to Reggie Gallaspy II.
· My disdain for the wildcat is well documented, but Samuels converted a fourth and two from the 38 to extend the drive that led to State’s first points and also notched his score from the formation, so…no it still needs to be purged from the playbook. (But kudos to you, Dave, for not punting inside the 40.)
· Nyheim Hines had a career-high three rushing touchdowns and went for 72 yards on 16 carries. Gallaspy was even better on a per carry basis, getting 70 yards on 11 rushes and two scores.
· NC State dominated in the trenches to the tune of a 164-117 advantage in rushing yardage, and it wasn’t really that close. The Sun Devils had just 33 yards rushing at the half and four yards in the third quarter before finally finding their footing in a fourth quarter that was all essentially garbage time.
· Ryan Finley was fantastic, completing 24 of his 29 throws for 318 yards, a TD, and no interceptions. It was his sixth 300-yard game of the season.
· Turnovers were a big difference in the game, as the Pack pressured Manny Wilkins into three interceptions and also forced a fumble to finish +3 in TOM.
· The Pack got after Wilkins just fine without Chubb (and BJ Hill, who left the game early due to injury), recording three sacks. Senior Kentavius Street was credited with 1.5 sacks and fellow senior Jerod Fernandez got one as well.
· Stephen Louis went over 100 yards receiving in the first half (three catches for 115 yards), and Jakobi Meyers added seven catches for 76 yards and a TD after slipping a defender to turn a short out into six points.
· Kelvin Harmon had a quiet game (four catches for 28 yards), but his blocking downfield helped spring Meyers, and his gains through the air were enough to push him over 1,000 yards receiving for the season. It’s just the second time in school history that State’s had a 3,000-yard passer, 1,000-yard rusher, and 1,000-yard receiver in the same season.
· Airius Moore turned a tipped pass into an interception and led all Pack tacklers with 10 stops in his final game in the red and white.
· Another senior superlative came when former walk-on Nicholas Lacy recovered a surprise onside kick before the half, leading to a short field and Meyers’ TD grab.
· Much-maligned kicker Kyle Bambard was perfect on the afternoon. Sure, several of the extra points wobbled sideways over the crossbar like a wounded duck, but he made all seven of his XPs and a short field goal too. Bambard also managed three touchbacks.
· State received some good fortune when a roughing the punter penalty extended a drive that ended in just three points thanks to a drop in the end zone. Airzona State left more points off the board after Doeren double iced the kicker before the half, resulting in a hook that sailed well wide of the uprights. But don’t think for a minute that the Pack won the special teams battle…
· In case you haven’t seen NC State football for the past two years, “the bad” section of these recaps is really just the space where we talk about special teams. Let us recount the special teams blunders: a roughing the punter penalty, a muffed punt recovered by the bad guys, and an onside kick, albeit well executed, that got through two guys on the “hands” team before being recovered by a Sun Devil. Thankfully, ASU only managed 10 points off of the above miscues—all of which are essentially turnovers even if only one is recorded as such in the box score. The Pack would not have survived their special teams performance against a better team.
· In case you haven’t seen NC State football for the past two years, “the ugly” section of these recaps is really just the space where we talk about special teams (and red zone inefficiency). The Pack botched the execution of a field goal fake or Bambard likely scores a rushing TD, which would’ve been super neat given all the guy has been through in his State career. In reality, the ugliest thing about the fake was that it was necessary in the first place. The Pack had first and goal from the two yard line and came away with nothing on their opening drive. State converted less than 60% of its trips into the red zone into touchdowns this year. That ineptitude (the TD conversion rate was bottom third in FBS), coupled with the horrendous special teams play, was the difference between a very good season and a great one. (And it’s nothing new, as the Pack put up six points at nearly an identical rate last year.)
NC State loses about a million senior starters from the defense, and of course JaySam is irreplaceable. The Band of Brothers played well without Adams, but his loss will be felt as well. This game highlighted the importance of those seniors—JaySam getting key conversions to move the sticks and having a nose for the end zone, Street and Fernandez being disruptive behind the line of scrimmage, Moore making tackles—and, fittingly, sent them out on a high note. But the game also showed that the cupboard is far from bare, especially if juniors Finley, Hines, and Will Richardson resist the siren song of the NFL. Finley, of course, has a season of eligibility left but already has his undergraduate and graduate degrees; he’s a certain NFL pick if he comes out. State’s fortunes next year will hinge on his decision as much as anything, but, with him or without him, if the team can improve its execution inside the 20 and get out from behind the eight-ball of special teams ineptitude, there’s no reason to expect a step back despite the loss of so many talented seniors.
With the dust settling from 2017, and an impressive recruiting haul from the prep class of 2018, nine wins doesn’t seem like a once in a decade feat for this program, but rather the new normal. Make it happen, Dave.