For those of you who are new around here or need a refresher, the “morning after” feature with yours truly attempts to take a dispassionate view of NC State’s football performance each week by allowing some distance between the game and putting of fingertips to plastic keys. This “cold take” comes once the rageahol has been removed from the blood by my weakened, Wolfpack-sports-induced fatty liver, thus eliminating getting too high after a win, or, as in this case, too doom and gloom after a loss.
NC State dominated USC-East, an up and coming SEC foe, in its season opener yet lost by doing the very two things that allow a team to dominate and lose: turn the ball over and suck on special teams. There was a lot to like in the Pack’s 35-28 loss and plenty of bad and ugly, too, so let’s get to it.
· Ryan Finley was unable to engineer the game-tying drive, but you certainly can’t fault the man’s numbers. The next in line for an NFL gig from QBU completed 45 of 64 throws for 415 yards, two TDS, and no picks.
· Finley’s 45 completions are a school record and fifth most in ACC history.
· Jaylen Samuels tied Torry Holt’s school record for catches with 15 grabs. JaySam accounted for 85 yards through the air and hauled in a TD pass.
· That TD catch came on a rare bad throw from Finley, but JaySam contorted his body to haul it in at an extremely high pressure time: fourth and goal down by two scores in the fourth quarter.
· Kelvin Harmon looked the part of all-ACC receiver with 10 catches for 114 yards.
· In all, nine different Pack players hauled in a pass with four catching at least one gain of 21 yards or more.
· Nyheim Hines looked like a capable replacement for Matt Dayes in the backfield, averaging 5.4 yards per carry on 15 runs that included a score. With four catches as well, Hines put up 113 yards from scrimmage.
· Redshirt senior Johnathan Alston, making the switch from WR to CB, had some growing pains and did get beat deep for a TD, but he made an athletic interception and tallied one of State’s two sacks on a blitz. It’s a shame he didn’t get a couple of games against cupcakes to get his feet wet, but even going against an elite receiver in Deebo Samuel, he showed promise in his first start.
· The defense completely stymied the USC-East running game, holding the Cocks to 31 net yards and an average of 1.5 per tote.
· It’s hard to look at the box score and figure out how the Pack found a way to lose this one, as they won the first down tally 29-12 and the total yards tally 504-246.
· A hallmark of Dave Doeren teams has been balance on offense, but despite a solid effort from Hines, the run game was far outpaced by the passing game. Perhaps the reliance on passing was born of necessity due to playing from behind, but it doesn’t bode well for Finley’s health if he’s going to have to chuck it 60+ times.
· Reggie Gallaspy had eight negative yards on runs and netted just 27 yards on 13 carries, too often freelancing in the backfield instead of patiently following his blockers to the hole. A dude of his size and strength should not be getting dragged down for a loss.
· JaySam got just one rushing attempt (and it went for nine yards). He’s our best running back, and not just on sweeps and gadget plays. Give him some runs between the tackles! I’d very much like to see him get 7-8 touches on the ground and through the air rather than just being a possession receiver.
· The Pack still had a chance to tie the game despite them, but drops (one by JaySam for a first down and one by Jakobi Meyers on a deep ball) were costly. JaySam also dropped a pass in the opening drive that the Pack was able to overcome; still, a little better concentration and he sets a school record for completions (and perhaps the game has a different outcome).
· Damn the penalties. Eight flags for 65 yards is too many.
· Not penalties/bad officiating. A blatant pass interference non-call in State’s second-to-last drive set off a series of unfortunate events. JaySam’s drop came on the next play, and thus two should’ve been first downs were not first downs. Then, JaySam is ruled down at the 31 on the fourth-down play. Replay seemed to pretty clearly show the ball at the 30, but the officials didn’t change the call leading to a turnover on downs. I am not a “blame the officials” guy and the Pack got the ball back with time to tie it, but the above sequence (some of it self-imposed with the drop) certainly made tough sledding even tougher.
· The two turnover on downs drives late in the fourth quarter are likely not necessary if not for actual turnovers of the fumble variety handing USC-East two short fields. The Cocks converted both fumbles into TDs and were 4-for-4 in converting red zone trips to touchdowns (while the Pack were 4-for-6).
· One of those TDs was a total gift on a blown coverage where three guys covered one dude and no guys covered Rico Dowdle coming out of the backfield. How can this happen?
· Will Richardson. I hate to single one guy out, but State’s starting right tackle missed the game due to a behavior-related suspension. Not acceptable. Redshirt freshman Justin Witt was flagged three times in the game and often had to be helped by Tony Adams on pass plays. Add in Terrone Prescod missing parts of the game after getting dinged, and a patchwork offensive line allows four sacks (one that turned Finley’s ankle and led to a fumble and USC TD).
· Meanwhile, NC State’s vaunted front four could not generate pressure on the passer without help from a blitz (both sacks came from DBs).
· Freddie Phillips was one of those DBs who came free on a blitz and should have had Jake Bentley down for a sack; instead, he took an over-aggressive approach, allowing Bentley to escape and throw a long TD. Adding injury to insult, Phillips hurt his Achilles on the play and could be out for a long time.
· Samuel ran right by a guy who has in a full nelson on his way to returning the opening kick for a TD. I mean there were 10 other guys that might’ve made a play, and why the hell would we kick it in his direction in the first place, but damn what a blatant hold.
· Steven Hauschka ain’t walking through that door.
This has got to be the longest list of ugly I’ve compiled since I’ve done this, and that’s how you lose a game you dominate, and that shouldn’t happen in Doeren’s fifth year with such a veteran team. I give the guy credit for building a roster that was deserving of some offseason hype, but at some point you’ve got to win, Dave. No, I’m not banging the drum for your dismissal, and sure “it’s just one game” and who knows what happens from here, but maybe reassign Eddie Faulkner to bus driver and bring in a dedicated special teams coach? My liver and your employment status can’t survive this kicking game forever.
But, if we take the 30,000-foot view, remember that for the past several seasons our offseasons were comprised of trying to dream up scenarios that could just get us to bowl eligibility, hey maybe even eight wins if things break right. Now, many of us are expecting eight wins as a floor with dreams of contending in arguably college football’s toughest division as a ceiling. We’ve come a long way. There’s a lot of football left. The first of those two statements is a good thing, and the latter might be too.