N.C. State started the football season with high goals, dreaming of an ACC championship and the College Football Playoff.
Instead, the Wolfpack closed its season at Sun Bowl Stadium on Friday – but that did little to dampen coach Dave Doeren’s enthusiasm because his team accomplished so much this season.
When Marty Robbins’ classic song “El Paso” blared over the speakers through the stadium after N.C. State’s 52-31 romp over Arizona State, Doeren grabbed his wife and began dancing with her on the stadium’s turf.
“It’s a great song,” Doeren said. “I had to dance to that one.”
N.C. State’s win capped a standout football season in the school’s long athletic history. For just the 11th time, the Wolfpack (9-4) won at least nine games in a season. It’s the first time N.C. State has accomplished that feat since 2010 and the third time this century.
The Wolfpack won six ACC games for the first time since 1994.
N.C. State entered the Sun Bowl No. 24 in the College Football Playoff, meaning the Wolfpack will end the year in the top 25.
In his fifth season on the job, and armed with the new contract negotiated earlier this month, Doeren is thrilled with how far the program has come since the Wolfpack went winless in the ACC in 2013 during his first season.
“Top 25 is the standard we want for the program,” Doeren said. “It’s where we want to live. This senior class got us to that point. That’s the standard we live by at this point, and we want it to continue to climb.”
The senior class missed three contributors in the Sun Bowl win. Defensive end Bradley Chubb sat out, as expected, to avoid injury before the NFL Draft. Starting right guard Tony Adams and cornerback Mike Stevens missed the game with injuries.
Still, the Wolfpack rolled on just fine. The class that brought them from the depths of a winless ACC season to this nine-win season did plenty against Arizona State.
Senior wide receiver Jaylen Samuels had eight passes thrown his way. He caught seven of them to gain 46 yards. He leaves N.C. State as the school’s’ all-time leader in career receptions with 202.
The versatile Samuels also ran 2 yards for a fourth-quarter touchdown, his team-leading 16th of the season.
“I thanked him before the game for all he’s done for our program,” Doeren said. “He’s done a lot for our program.”
Samuels is a big reason N.C. State entered Friday fourth among ACC teams averaging 449.3 yards per game. The Pack finished with 491 yards against Arizona State with six rushing touchdowns.
“For us to send the seniors out the right way, that’s a great thing,” Samuels said. “It’s a great group of seniors. Great guys. We just wanted to leave a legacy for the younger guns coming up.”
Even without Chubb lining up on the opposite side of N.C. State’s front line, senior defensive end Kentavius Street collected 1.5 sacks against Arizona State and was named the Sun Bowl’s top lineman. The Sun Devils scored just one touchdown over the game’s first three quarters as the Wolfpack built a 38-10 lead.
“We just played as a whole,” Street said. “Even with Chubb’s absence, he’s the spirit of our defense and everything. I feel like we just came together and played as hard as we could. We couldn’t leave this bowl game unfinished. We wanted to play as hard as we can.”
N.C. State has plenty of juniors who could be back to build on this season’s success. Quarterback Ryan Finley and running back Nyheim Hines (the game’s MVP with three touchdowns) are mulling early entry into the NFL Draft. If they return, they’ll team with wide receivers Stephen Louis, rising junior Kelvin Harmon and rising junior Jakobi Meyers to give the Wolfpack a potent offense.
Those decisions will be made in the coming days and weeks.
On Friday night, the Wolfpack were only concerned with celebrating a special season. Could it have been better? Of course. If Hines had been completely healthy on Nov. 4, perhaps the Wolfpack would have defeated Clemson to control the ACC Atlantic Division. The losses to South Carolina and Wake Forest sting.
But the dominant performance over Arizona State left Doeren and the Wolfpack appreciating how far they’ve come in five years.
“The thing I’m most proud of with these guys is how they complete tasks and finish jobs,” Doeren said. “Not everybody does that. There’s a lot of talented people that don’t. These guys do and that’s what makes them who they are and makes my job fun to be around guys like that.”