In college football, the next game is almost always a reaction to the previous game.
That was the bad news for N.C. State last week. It might turn out to be good news for the Wolfpack this week.
N.C. State poured it out against Clemson two weeks ago and lost 24-17 in overtime on the road. It was going to be difficult for N.C. State to replicate that type of effort the next game, regardless of the opponent.
That it was Louisville, on the road, after the Cardinals had a subpar performance in a win over Duke was a bad combo. A really bad combo for N.C. State.
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Louisville jumped out early and scored often and didn’t relent until it had a 44-0 halftime lead.
“It wasn’t our best against their best,” N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said. “They played a really good game, and we didn’t.”
Amazingly, it could have been worse. N.C. State’s defense held the Cardinals to three field goals in the first half.
So Louisville was really good, and N.C. State wasn’t. The natural reaction this week will be for N.C. State to want to atone for last week (as opposed to having to replicate an extraordinary effort from Clemson).
These are the ebbs and flows of college football and they are not unique to N.C. State. The Wolfpack, in some ways, is actually lucky the schedule broke with Louisville and Boston College, in the order, the way that it did.
N.C. State was probably going to be flat, regardless on Saturday. It probably wasn’t going to beat Louisville on the road, without a perfect game. It needs to beat Boston College, winless in the ACC, in order to make a bowl game. After a poor effort last week, the Wolfpack should be ready to bounce back against the Eagles at home.
▪ Ryan Finley struggled, particularly in the first half. He wasn’t the only player on N.C. State’s offense who couldn’t make heads from tails, but when you’re the quarterback, it’s more noticeable.
Finley threw an interception on his first throw of the game, and it was a sign of things to come for the Wolfpack.
Against Clemson, N.C. State was able to get running back Nyheim Hines loose on a wheel route (on a linebacker) for 39 yards on the second play of the game.
The Wolfpack went back to the well on the first play against Louisville, but Finley forced a throw into double coverage. Louisville corner Trumaine Washington (who had Hines, not a linebacker) stepped in front of Hines for the pick and returned it 13 yards to N.C. State’s 29-yard line. Louisville was only able to get a field goal out of the turnover.
Finley was picked again on N.C. State’s only drive into Louisville territory in the second quarter. Down 27-0, he tried to find Jaylen Samuels on third-and-10 from Louisville’s 29 but was intercepted by linebacker Jonathan Greenard at 6:39.
Backup Jalan McClendon finished the half from there and threw an interception of his own.
For the half, Finley was 5-of-10 for 44 yards with two interceptions.
Given Finley’s value going forward, it was a good move to go back to him in the second half.
He was 9-of-21 in the second half for 192 yards with a pair of touchdowns. He hit receiver Maurice Trowell on a 70-yard score, and receiver Kelvin Harmon made a nice grab on a 14-yard touchdown.
There were protection problems up front, without right tackle Will Richardson, and there was the aforementioned “Clemson hangover,” but N.C. State can’t be good if Finley doesn’t take care of the ball.
In the first five games, against relatively easier competition, Finley had nine touchdowns and zero interceptions. In the past two games, against top 10 teams, Finley had two touchdowns and four interceptions.
Given Florida State, Miami and North Carolina are still on the schedule, Finley has to find a way to be better against the good teams.
▪ N.C. State had two chances in the first half to get back into the game.
On the first, safety Josh Jones forced a fumble of receiver James Quick at the Louisville 40-yard line and recovered it. The officials took a long time to make a call on the field and then blew the play dead late, when N.C. State could have returned the fumble for a touchdown.
After everything was sorted – it was eventually called a fumble on the field and confirmed on review – N.C. State was down 10-0 and had the ball at Louisville’s 40-yard line.
On first down, Louisville was ready for the jet sweep from Hines, which went backward8 yards. On second down, a screen to Jakobi Meyers went for a 2-yard loss and then a third-down screen to Hines lost a yard.
Three plays, minus-11 yards, punt.
Then down 27-0, N.C. State had first-and-10 from Louisville’s 29. Coordinator Eli Drinkwitz dialed up a pass for Meyers, a quarterback by trade, and he had receiver Stephen Louis open for a touchdown. Meyers underthrew the pass and Louisville corner Jaire Alexander was able to recover and break up the play.
That was six with a better throw. On the next play, Finley was picked off by Greenard.
That’s the second time this year Meyers hasn’t been able to make a good throw on a trick play designed for him. Against Wake Forest, he completed a 27-yard pass to tight end Cole Cook, but it would have been a touchdown with a better throw.
Normally, you don’t give receivers (or running backs) a hard time about their trick plays, but Meyers is a quarterback and has to make better throws.
▪ Josh Jones continues to have a standout, bounce-back season for N.C. State’s defense. He had 10 tackles and broke up three passes to go along with the forced fumble.
The junior safety struggled last year but has been a consistent bright spot this season.
▪ N.C. State’s defense had made a lot of progress in giving up big plays. Clemson’s offense had four “explosive” (10-plus run, 20-plus pass) plays last week. Notre Dame only had one.
But Louisville had 10 (six running, four passing) and scored on three of them – a 36-yard run by Lamar Jackson, a 74-yard pass to Jaylen Smith and a 67-yard pass to Cole Hikutini).
Jackson, by the way, is somehow better than I thought. (And my feelings were pretty clear beforehand.)
I wasn’t the only one impressed.
“There’s a real difference between game film and real-live speed,” N.C. State cornerback Jack Tocho said. “He’s a tremendous athlete, he did have that quick twitch that we expected, but as it showed in the first half, we weren’t really prepared for it.”
Jackson just has another gear running the football. And then the two NFL throws he made – the 74-yard laser to Smith and a 16-yard seed to Jamari Staples – were nearly perfect.
It would be fun to see what Jackson could do against Alabama’s incredible defense.
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio