For the first time since 19alongtimeago, NC State started four different quarterbacks in the same season. This warpath that the injury bug had been on all year finally tore through the whole quarterback depth chart, sidelining MJ Morris and leaving State with the last scholarship quarterback on the roster starting his first career game. I’m not sure you could draw up a worse way to end what was supposed to be a groundbreaking season, with your fourth-string quarterback leading a worn out defense and incapacitated offense into your arch-rival’s house to propel them to a 10-win season.
State won, of course, because State just beats UNC in football. That’s just what happens, but also because the regular season that had been packed full of basically everything possible was not going to end with a whimper. There was just no way State was done being the weirdest, dumbest, toughest, most aggressively-committed-to-making-no-sense football team in America.
Instead, it was poetic justice. Drake Maye didn’t hesitate to make a fool of himself earlier this year with his random shot at NC State provoked by absolutely nothing, and Ben Finley coming from the scout team to not only outplay the supposed Heisman candidate, but also get the chance to absolutely unload on UNC in the postgame, was the poetic ending to the regular season both teams deserved.
These are the moments that college football is really about. It’s not about whether Georgia can beat Ohio State in an NFL Stadium hundreds of miles from either campus. It’s about guys like Ben Finley, who probably will never play in the NFL, creating something on a random Friday night that will last a lifetime for everyone who saw it.
I’ve tinkered a little bit with why this huge disappointment of a football season didn’t feel like as much of a disappointment as it actually was, and all I could land on was that it was chock full of entertaining things I won’t forget.
NC State didn’t just start four quarterbacks this year, it won at least one game with all four quarterbacks. Almost never is the line between measurable greatness and immeasurable greatness so perfectly drawn as it was here, in Raleigh, in 2022. NC State was far from great this year. It went 8-5, it had a terrible offense, it scored 12 points in the Mayo Bowl, and it lost to Boston College at home. Statistically, it was pretty mediocre, but this season will last a lifetime for the players and coaches involved in it. Ben Finley’s kids will tell their kids about the time grandpa came from the scout team to beat UNC.
None of that is to say that State sweeping its in-state opponents and things like Morris leading the sweet comeback against Virginia Tech nullify the underachievement of an 8-5 record. No, rather these things exist separately from each other, and that’s okay.
Some time between watching Jack Chambers quarterback NC State to a comeback against FSU and watching Finley outduel Maye in Chapel Hill, you realized that, despite the disappointing record, you were enjoying the ride, or at the very least found it compelling. The constant stream of memorable moments led by underdog players had changed a lot about what most people will remember from this year, and those things get to stand alone on their own merits.
It’s the human element that makes college football great, and we watched a lot of that part of the game unfold in 2022. This is true to some degree in every sport, but college sports in particular, and even more so college football, really allow it to thrive. Why did Ben Finley run into the stands in Chapel Hill to find his parents, and why is that a moment that stood out so profoundly, despite the fact that the game he won featured no measurable implications?
College football is regional in nature. It’s intimately intertwined into the communities that produce its largely locally-sourced rosters. It’s perpetually relevant because you live amongst each other, and the scarcity of opportunities makes everything matter more. The stakes are always high, even when they’re non-specific. State-Carolina matters, even when it doesn’t. This sport is built on the local rivalries. It’s one of the only sports that really isn’t about its postseason at all. It’s unique in that respect, and that feature creates opportunities for the human element to shine.
The personal storylines within this season are what moulds it into one of the more interesting and entertaining ones you’ll see, even as interesting is not a synonym for successful. Indeed, State went just 4-4 in the ACC, but packed into those four wins were three different underdog QBs with their own unique stories, two incredibly enjoyable wins over annoying, easy-to-hate in-state rivals, two double-digit comebacks, and two wins as an underdog. That’s a lot, and those parts were pretty fun.