As the adage goes, if you play with fire, you’re eventually going to get burned.
It’s been discussed at length how NC State has performed in close games in 2020. The Pack was 4-1 in one possession games during the regular season, an impressive number and a total reversal of the last seven years. State leveraged its resilience to claw its way to an 8-3 season with half of those wins being games it could have easily lost. Nobody is here to take the significance of that accomplishment away, and anyone who tries should be shunned appropriately.
But the reality of turning every single game into a coin-flip game is that, eventually, the coin will come up tails. Good teams win more close games than they lose, and NC State is a good team. But eventually, inevitably, it will fall the other way.
NC State had proven pretty capable of maneuvering some hairy situations this season. It dug itself a two-score hole on the road at Syracuse, a result of two first half turnovers. It had 14 penalties for 123 yards against Liberty, and those were just the accepted ones. It blew a 14-point second half lead against Wake Forest. It even dangled the Georgia Tech game out there for longer than it ever should have. The common thread through all of those games was the Pack finding a way to overcome it.
In Saturday’s Gator Bowl, it finally did not. The frustration with Saturday’s result comes not from the loss itself, but more from the idea that it didn’t have to be that way. This game didn’t have to be yet another where NC State needed a huge play late in the fourth quarter to win. But State missed two field goals, threw three interceptions, and extended numerous Kentucky drives with offsides penalties. It was undisciplined and truthfully kind of a mess, especially in the first half.
Those games happen to just about every team, and good teams find a way to win anyway. State has mostly done that in 2020, good team that it is, but a point comes where you have to clean up those mistakes, because you can’t overcome them forever. The one true criticism of this team is that it never really did that. It got sloppier as the season went on, and it finally got burned by it.
Kentucky certainly did its best to outdumb NC State on Saturday. The Cats actually had almost twice as many penalties. There was nothing about Kentucky that was particularly impressive, and given how sloppy it was, State should have been able to take this game. But the Pack’s own accumulation of errors kept it from taking advantage, and the result was a game that would once again be decided in the late stages of the fourth quarter. This time it was the other team that made the play.
Truth be told, NC State has a chance to be really good next year if it can get healthy and clean up its mistakes, but it does actually have to do the latter. NC State was 116th in the country in penalties per game, and it didn’t outright cost the team a game until (arguably) Saturday. Again, it’s great that the Pack was able to overcome all of that in the regular season, but if you insist upon farting and flubbing your way to an unnecessary game-deciding sequence every single week, well that’s just not going to prove sustainable.