As a football team, N.C. State is like a classic-rock band, still touring 25 years after its last No. 1, that gets it. No one wants to hear songs from the new album; just play the hits. And the Wolfpack played all its greatest hits Saturday.
Turnovers. Blown coverages. Special-teams blunders. Penalties. Drops. Even a sideline warning. And, in the end, a season-opening loss to an SEC team. It was an N.C. State instant classic, pulled from any decade, full of missed opportunities and self-inflicted wounds, to deliver a disbelieving South Carolina a 35-28 win.
The last time this state gift-wrapped something for that state like this, the NCAA tournament was exiled to Greenville – where South Carolina also beat a Triangle team that had no excuse for losing.
The Wolfpack doubled up South Carolina in yards, first downs and plays and was still sitting 10 yards out on fourth down in the final seconds trying to force overtime, assuming N.C. State made the extra point, a dangerous assumption. It never came to that. Ryan Finley’s school-record 64th pass of the day was knocked away and landed with a thud in the end zone, along with most of N.C. State’s hopes for a special season.
“I hate to bring them up, but UNC, a couple years ago, they lost to Georgia in their first game and ended up playing for the ACC championship,” N.C. State’s Bradley Chubb said. “You never know what the season holds.”
It was actually South Carolina, not Georgia, in an opening-weekend game in this same stadium, although to be fair to Chubb the Triangle’s season-opening losses to SEC teams do tend to run together after a while. (South Carolina, Georgia, South Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, LSU, South Carolina, South Carolina, etc.) And the Wolfpack still could, like North Carolina two years ago, run off a long winning streak, win its division and maybe even work its way into the playoff conversation. Beat Clemson and Florida State, and this loss will recede into the past very quickly.
But the best-case scenario went out the window Saturday, yet another piece of evidence that Dave Doeren may be that most dangerous of coaches: a good man who means well, but just competent enough to keep his job year after year, and that’s all. In Year 5, with 11 senior starters, even Doeren admitted there’s no excuse for an error-riddled performance against a middle-of-the-pack SEC team.
So there’s no hidden mystery about N.C. State, even if one prognosticator picked them to make the College Football Playoff (bless his heart). What’s inside is exactly what you see on the box. Finley and Jaylen Samuels are good (and for a welcome change Samuels was over-utilized if anything, coming one catch short of the ACC record). So is the defensive line. The offensive line and secondary, both missing key players to injury on Saturday, are not.
Nevertheless, N.C. State did enough to win. It also did enough to itself to make sure it didn’t, from giving up a touchdown on the opening kickoff to dropping interceptions to killing momentum with untimely penalties to missing field goals to letting South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley slip out of sacks to extend drives.
It was 21-21 at the half, Finley’s play buying the Wolfpack a mulligan for all the first-half miscues. N.C. State proceeded to give up touchdowns on South Carolina’s first two drives. The defense started making plays and only gave up one first down after that, but the offense fizzled and couldn’t do anything with all the second chances the defense gave it.
“I asked everybody in the room, ‘Is that our best?’ and they said no,” Doeren said. “That’s what we’ve got to figure out, how to make that one, two, three or four more plays when we’re in position to make them, and as coaches look at everything we do.”
All of which left N.C. State where it has been so many times before, and not merely mulling yet another loss to the Gamecocks, an experience generations of Wolfpack players now share. Regardless of how realistic it may have been, this was a team that at least had a chance to do something really special. Instead, it did what N.C. State so often does. And unlike a past-its-prime band playing old songs that rekindle old memories and happier times, no one leaves feeling good when the Wolfpack does what made it famous.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock