Let’s start with the obvious: N.C. State attempted four field goals and made one. That’s not good.
N.C. State is essentially six points away from being 6-0 this season. It has missed field goals of 44, 42, 43, 37 and 33 yards (with makes from 30 and 28) in its losses to East Carolina (33-30) and Clemson (24-17).
That’s not good enough. We’ve talked before about working the margins, and special teams is one of those areas where you can make some hay. N.C. State has improved its return game and punter A.J. Cole is having an excellent season but the field-goal unit, with either Kyle Bambard or Connor Haskins (who had the two misses at ECU) needs to improve.
That doesn’t mean you should threaten Bambard’s life. The kid missed a kick. Let’s not overreact. Golden Rule, people: Do unto others as you would have done to you.
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▪ Given those kicking problems, should Dave Doeren and Eli Drinkwitz have done more to try to win the game with the offense on the field?
Senior running back Matt Dayes ran nine times on N.C. State’s last drive for 33 yards. He also caught a third-down pass for 5 yards. N.C. State had the ball first-and-10 at Clemson’s 12-yard line with 51 seconds left and a pair of timeouts.
Personally, I would have given Dayes a chance to win the game. Dayes earned all of his 106 yards (on 22 carries) against a Clemson defensive front that is as good as any team in the country. He poured it out in the fourth quarter and put N.C. State in position to win the game.
However, I don’t disagree with what N.C State was trying to do on THE first-down call. The Pack was trying to leak big-play specialist Pharoah McKever into the end zone for the win.
Clemson defensive end Christian Wilkins (more on him in a minute) just blew up the play. Thaddeus Moss and Cole Cook, both excellent blockers, couldn’t get enough of Wilkins to allow quarterback Ryan Finley to throw the ball out in the end zone for McKever. Finley did what he could to get back near the line of scrimmage and avoid disaster.
I have more of a problem with the play-call in overtime. Finley tried a “my guy is better than your guy” play with receiver Bra’Lon Cherry in the end zone on the first play of overtime. There’s being aggressive and then there’s being smart.
Die with your fastball. Cherry is not the fastball. Finley targeted Cherry six times on Saturday: two of those attempts were intercepted and one was completed (for 4 yards).
▪ The other problem in overtime and the McKever call: Jaylen Samuels wasn’t on the field either time.
Samuels led the Wolfpack with eight catches for 100 yards and was a general safety valve for Finley, who had a difficult game (20-of-40, 231 yards, two interceptions) against an excellent Clemson defense.
If you don’t want to give Samuels the ball, at least use him as a decoy.
(Just to go total backseat-mode here: If you run a play-fake off the “JaySam Play” at the end of regulation, the Clemson defense follows Samuels one way and you leak McKever the other way.)
For the game, Samuels was unofficially on the field for 41 of N.C. State’s 74 offensive plays. Almost all (34 of 41), were from the slot position.
On N.C. State’s last two long drives in the fourth quarter (14 plays, 75 yards on Dayes’ 2-yard TD and 14 plays, 55 yards on missed FG), Cook and Moss were used in run-heavy blocking sets. Samuels is a capable blocker but I do understand why they used the personnel packages they did in those situations.
▪ You can complain about the refs (covered here) or the missed kicks, but you have to give Clemson credit, Wilkins in particular. He was their best player, in my opinion, and that includes quarterback Deshaun Watson (378 passing yards) and receiver Mike Williams (12 catches, 146 yards).
Wilkins, a 6-foot-4, 310-pound defensive end, blocked a field goal (a 37-yard attempt) in the third quarter and had the key pressure on Finley on the last play of regulation. He also ran for a first down on a fake punt in the second quarter. You can probably chalk up a few of the six false-start penalties on N.C. State to trying to get a head start in blocking Wilkins.
I don’t know if Wilkins, a sophomore, is the No. 1 overall pick in the draft when he comes out next year, but I would be stunned if he’s not one of the first five picks of the draft.
N.C. State’s defense had a day, safety Dravious Wright in particular. Wright caused a pair of fumbles and finished with nine tackles.
On the whole, the Wolfpack defense forced four turnovers and had a goal-line stand (excellent work by B.J. Hill and Ford Howell), which might as well have counted as a fifth turnover.
Wright’s early hit on Clemson running back Wayne Gallman altered the game. Wright knocked Gallman out with a concussion. Given how targeting has been called in college football this season, and in N.C. State games, Wright could have been flagged for the hit. He was not.
The “defenseless” player part of the rule is why Wright wasn’t flagged, by the way.
Clemson’s offense wasn’t the same without Gallman, but you can’t grade N.C. State’s defense on a curve. The defenders were hitting hard and making plays. ESPN’s Steve Levy commented several times during the broadcast about how hard N.C. State was hitting.
If that version of N.C. State’s defense had shown up against ECU on Sept. 10, the Wolfpack would not have lost.
It’s also safe to say the defensive effort from the Notre Dame win was not a fluke.
▪ Was cool to see McKever get rewarded for his punt block against Notre Dame. McKever started the game, technically at tight end, and was the primary target on what could have been the game-winning play in regulation.
Given McKever’s value in some of Doeren’s most important wins (at Syracuse in 2014 and vs. Notre Dame last week), he has earned a chance to do more.
▪ My apologies to Adam Humphries and Hunter Renfrow for mixing you up on Twitter. My bad.
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio