Any time N.C. State stumbles in the spotlight, as it did against Wake Forest, there’s a tendency to want to file that type of loss as “N.C. State Stuff.”
There are any number of reasons for the stunning 27-23 loss to the Demon Deacons but that’s not what happened on Thursday at Carter-Finley Stadium.
This was N.C. State (6-3, 3-3 ACC) was in control of a game — 13-3 at the half and 23-13 in the fourth quarter — but couldn’t find a way to close it out. It got away with similar such efforts in wins over Virginia and Boston College earlier in the season but it finally caught up to them, at the worst possible time, on Thursday.
This was N.C. State scored too many field goals and not enough touchdowns, mind-numbingly ignoring their best player in the most important part of the field in the process.
This was N.C. State couldn’t come up with a stop against a green quarterback when it needed it one.
This was the definition of “N.C. State can’t have nice things.”
At No. 14 in the College Football Playoff rankings, N.C. State had a realistic chance at a spot in a major bowl for the first time in school history. N.C. State needed some help to get to a New Year’s day bowl but what it absolutely had to do was win the four very winnable games left on its schedule. It couldn’t get past the first team on the list, a 19-point underdog missing its quarterback and 11 other injured players who are out for the season.
This was all of the above, not voodoo or the cosmos aligning against them. On the contrary, this N.C. State team has had multiple breaks go its way this season. The absence of Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman should have been another one for the Wolfpack. Instead, sophomore quarterback Jamie Newman came through in the clutch. In his first college start, Newman threw for 297 yards and three touchdowns (without an interception).
With 1:39 left in the game and 80 yards to go, down 23-20, Newman calmly directed his team down the field and hit tight end Jack Freudenthal for a 32-yard touchdown with 30 seconds left.
N.C. State quarterback Ryan Finley, a sixth-year senior, is projected to be a first-round pick in the next NFL draft. He leads the ACC in passing. Thursday was his 35th start for the Wolfpack yet Newman now has more game-winning, fourth-quarter drives than Finley.
That doesn’t place the blame solely on the star quarterback. Finley threw for 374 yards and he wasn’t the reason N.C. State ran for 47 yards (on 27 carries). But it’s not unfair to ask a future NFL quarterback to provide a signature moment at some point over the course of three seasons.
Finley has been unable to do that in a clutch situation. Nine times since 2016, Finley has had a chance to win or tie a game with a late drive. Nine times, he has failed to convert.
Finley was able to find star receiver Kelvin Harmon 15 times on Thursday, for a game-high 134 yards, but not in the red zone. For the game, Finley attempted nine passes from inside Wake’s 20-yard line but none were thrown to Harmon.
“I mean, I had 15 catches but ... “ Harmon said and took a long pause, “... however you take it. (I’m) ready for the next game.”
N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said two plays were designed for Harmon on a third-quarter drive with N.C. State up 13-6. Neither was the same design as Harmon’s 8-yard touchdown in a win over Florida State last week. Harmon was isolated one-on-one with a defensive back and Finley threw him an alley-oop for the second-quarter touchdown against the Seminoles.
It’s a simple play, a “my guy is better than your guy” type matchup which allows Harmon, a strong, physical receiver, the opportunity to fight for the ball and make a play.
That type of play wasn’t called against Wake on Thursday in the Deacs’ end of the field. With a chance to close out the game on fourth-and-3 from Wake’s 20-yard line with 1:43 left, Finley threw to freshman receiver Thayer Thomas. On the previous possession, Finley took a deep shot to sophomore receiver C.J. Riley on fourth down instead of looking for Harmon.
“We had two play-calls for (Harmon) down there and both times we couldn’t get the ball to him,” Doeren said of a red-zone possession that ended with a 23-yard field goal at 3:40 in the third quarter.
Doeren said Harmon was held in the end zone by a Wake defender on one of the plays. Tight end Cary Angeline dropped a pass in the end zone on the same series. It was one of four drops by N.C. State in the game.
That drive ended with a 23-yard field goal by Chris Dunn, one of three by the freshman kicker from inside of 30 yards.
“We had plenty of other chances to put that game away,” Doeren said. “They made more plays than us. That’s really what it comes down to.”
The sixth-year coach is right and that has nothing to do with curses or the cosmos and everything to do with letting a once-in-a-lifetime chance slip right through their hands.