N.C. State leaves Notre Dame no worse for the wear in the ACC race.
Even after a sobering 35-14 loss to the Fighting Irish, the Wolfpack still sits alone in first place in what has become an almost upside-down version Atlantic Division.
The Wolfpack’s conference goals, just like they were after the disheartening season-opening loss to South Carolina on Sept. 2, remain intact.
But what No. 14 N.C. State (6-2) did lose on Saturday was the opportunity for national relevance. The school is celebrating 125 years of college football and rarely has it been – if ever – in the position to be a factor in the national championship conversation.
You just don’t get many shots like the one N.C. State had on Saturday. Injuries were a problem, so were penalties, but N.C. State was up 14-7 in the second quarter. The Wolfpack just wasn’t good enough to keep up with No. 9 Notre Dame.
Not with long-striding running back Josh Adams (202 yards) doing his Eric Dickerson impersonation, and Notre Dame rolling up 318 rushing yards.
“You just have to tackle,” N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said. “That’s the No. 1 fundamental on defense, and we didn’t do that well enough.”
Doeren lamented the effect injuries had on N.C. State’s performance. Running back Nyheim Hines got hurt in the first quarter and didn’t play the rest of the game. Defensive tackles Justin Jones and Eurndraus Bryant followed in the second quarter. Jones didn’t play in the second half. Defensive end Darian Roseboro went down in the fourth quarter.
“I really wish we were full-strength in that game,” Doeren said. “I was really looking forward to that being a four-quarter game. We just didn’t have it.”
Fair enough. Doeren wasn’t making excuses, he was pointing out reality. N.C. State’s offense wasn’t the same without Hines, who had rushed for at least 100 yards in the past three games.
The Wolfpack finished with 50 rushing yards, and quarterback Ryan Finley threw the ball 37 times with little effect after a spectacular touchdown catch by Kelvin Harmon 12 seconds into the second quarter.
A season-high 12 penalties also hurt N.C. State’s cause. Obviously, many N.C. State fans didn’t like discrepancy in penalties. The visiting team was flagged 12 times for 89 yards by the ACC officiating crew, while the home team was flagged four times for 29 yards.
“I can’t criticize the officials, unless you want to pay the fine for me,” Doeren said. “I’d love to tell you what I thought, but I’m not going to do that.”
Injuries and penalties are a bad combo, but they’re not the main reason N.C. State lost. Notre Dame was more aggressive and was simply better up front on both sides the ball.
“We just didn’t execute like we know we can,” said senior defensive end Bradley Chubb, speaking for the defense, but it could be applied to the whole team. “That’s pretty much it. We didn’t execute.”
Chubb’s right. It’s pretty simple and the timing couldn’t have been worse for the Wolfpack.
The Clemson game next Saturday will still matter, Carter-Finley Stadium will still be crazy, but these opportunities don’t come around that often.
After the game, Doeren and the players tried to look ahead to their ACC goals but they will look back and lament this missed opportunity for years to come.
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio