NC State finishes with nine wins, but the season could have been so much better

N.C. State will conclude the 2018 season with nine wins and four loses. Five years ago, Wolfpack center Garrett Bradbury said the team would have been dancing in the locker room over nine wins.

This season, nine wins felt like a missed opportunity to do something the Wolfpack has done just once before. Win 10.

In 2003, the Wolfpack won its 11th game at the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla. The Gator Bowl was unkind to the Wolfpack on Monday night, a 52-13 loss to Texas A&M at TIAA Bank Field.

N.C. State’s last game of 2018 was one the Wolfpack would like to forget. They surrendered 52 points, the most since giving up 54 to Louisville in 2016. Texas A&M running back Trayveon Williams ran for 236 yards, a Gator Bowl record, and the most rushing yards against an N.C. State defense since Thomas Jones of Virginia ran for 221 in 1999.

Head coach Dave Doeren said the Aggies were the more physical team and that he was outcoached.

With a senior quarterback in Ryan Finley, a veteran offensive line and a defense that played above expectations despite replacing eight starters, the Wolfpack had high goals this year.

A 10-win season was within reach, but losses to Clemson, Syracuse, Wake Forest and Texas A&M got in the way.

“It’s night and day what this program looks like since I first stepped on campus,” Bradbury said. “We would have been ecstatic, it would have been amazing, but we are all disappointed because we feel like we underachieved, to be honest.”

There were highs this season -- blowout wins over Florida State and ECU at home, a third straight win over rival North Carolina, and lows -- the big losses to Clemson and Syracuse and a four-point upset by Wake Forest on senior night. But the Gator Bowl was the lowest of the lows, with N.C. State giving up 541 yards of offense and going scoreless after taking a 13-7 lead.

There will be a quintet of possible replacements for departing quarterback Ryan Finley, but his final performance included two interceptions, one returned 78-yards for a touchdown, that gave the Aggies a 28-13 lead. Finley was 19-32 for 139 yards against the Aggies, a forgettable performance from the team’s biggest offensive star.

Finley said one game wouldn’t ruin so many “awesome things” that came from the 2018 season, and that the Wolfpack had a lot to be proud of.

After stopping A&M on fourth and 1, N.C. State, up six, gained seven yards on their next two drives. On the ensuing drive, the Wolfpack gained 17 yards on three plays before Finley threw the first of his interceptions.

“We ran the ball really well at times, then that (interception) flipped the momentum I thought,” Finley said. “We can’t really have that. We couldn’t get into a rhythm after that (interception).”

N.C. State dominated the first quarter and a half, looking like a team that could have wrapped up win No. 10 during the regular season. But they let Williams run wild for A&M, and suddenly couldn’t get off the field on third down.

“We just weren’t executing our plays,” senior defensive end Darian Roseboro said. “We weren’t getting three and outs, we weren’t making the plays we need to make. Wins and loses are part of the game, you have to learn from it and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Roseboro said he believe N.C. State will come back a better team from this Gator Bowl experience.

In his postgame press conference Doeren said he can’t wait to get back to work and will use this feeling to fuel his team through the offseason.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do, and I look forward to getting back to work after the break,” Doeren said. “I thank the senior class for what they helped us build. Losing a game like this, it feels bad, but there’s a lot of positive things that we can build for the future and I look forward to doing that.”

An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported where 52 points by an opponent rank in N.C. State history.

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Sports reporter Jonas Pope IV covers college recruiting, high school sports, NC Central and the ACC for the Herald-Sun and The News & Observer.