N.C. State junior Jaylen Samuels had been dealing with an ankle injury since the Wolfpack’s win over Old Dominion in the third week of the season.
Before N.C. State’s last bowl practice in Raleigh, Samuels didn’t have his right cleat spatted up with tape.
“I’m good now,” Samuels said.
He was right. Samuels caught six passes for a career-high 104 with three touchdowns in the Wolfpack’s 41-17 Independence Bowl rout of Vanderbilt on Monday.
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It was the second time in his career he broke the 100-yard receiving mark and third time scoring three touchdowns in a game. It was also clear given a month to heal, Samuels was sharp and the focus of coordinator Eli Drinkwitz’s game plan.
Samuels was targeted 10 times by quarterback Ryan Finley. The junior tight end/fullback scored twice in the second quarter. His first, a 9-yarder, was unusual in the sense that he was touched on the score. He caught a short pass over the middle on third-and-3 and then dove into the end zone for the touchdown and 7-3 lead.
His second touchdown, a 55-yard screen with key downfield blocks from center Joe Scelfo and left guard Garrett Bradbury, was vintage Samuels. He was barely touched, breaking one tackle from safety Arnold Tarpley, before cruising into the end zone.
Samuels’ third score was the same screen call. He cashed it in from 17 yards for a 28-3 lead late in the third quarter.
Drinkwitz also tried to get Samuels a rushing touchdown in the first quarter. He called the “JaySam Play,” a jet sweep, on second-and-goal from the 6 and Samuels picked up three yards. For the game, Samuels had two rushing attempts for nine yards.
Samuels is a clear difference-maker for N.C. State, as Monday proved again. There’s a reason for the pitch count and all the charts. He finished the season with a team-high 55 catches for 565 yards and seven touchdowns. He had 33 rushing attempts for 189 yards and six touchdowns.
ESPN’s David Hale noted on Monday that Samuels has 29 touchdowns from scrimmage (rushing or receiving) the past two years. The only Power 5 conference players with more? Florida State running back Dalvin Cook (39 touchdowns), LSU running back Leonard Fournette (31) and Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson (32 rushing touchdowns). That’s pretty good company.
But the difference is Samuels has 29 touchdowns in 209 touches. Cook has 551 touches and Fournette has 463.
Unlike Cook and Fournette, Samuels said last week he would be back for his senior season. With senior Matt Dayes moving on to the NFL, there’s a chance Samuels could play more at running back next season. He took 73.2 percent of his snaps (376 of 514) as a slot receiver this year (compared to 36 percent in the slot last year).
One thing N.C. State needs to do more of next season is get Samuels on the field. That’s on him to stay healthy and on Drinkwitz to keep him more involved. Samuels, unofficially, was on the field for 36 of the team’s 67 plays on Monday. For the season, he was on the field 54.6 percent (514 of 942) of the time. The nagging ankle injury certainly contributed to that but as the bowl showed, N.C. State needs Samuels and is better when Samuels is better.
▪ Lost in Samuels’ big day, it was a quiet ending for senior running back Matt Dayes, who had nine carries for 47 yards. All of his rushing attempts came in the first half.
Dayes fumbled twice in the first half but on the second one he was ruled down. Going into the game, Dayes had only fumbled twice in 271 touches (in wins over Old Dominion and Notre Dame).
The unusual ending doesn’t diminish what Dayes did during the season, carrying the team to a 28-21 win at North Carolina to get to the bowl game and becoming the program’s first 1,000-yard rusher (1,166 is the final number) in 14 years.
Reggie Gallaspy, who had 11 carries for 26 yards, will be first in line to replace Dayes next season. Samuels, Nyheim Hines and Dakwa Nichols will also figure into the mix, perhaps even Johnny Frasier.
▪ Quarterback Ryan Finley celebrated his 22nd birthday with a win and three touchdown passes. The graduate transfer finished 19 of 30 for 235 yards.
He had a great throw to receiver Bra’Lon Cherry for a 24-yard pickup in the third quarter and missed an open Hines for what would have been a big play. The big stat was no interceptions.
N.C. State went 5-5 against Power 5 opponents this season with Finley as the starter. The 10-3 win over Notre Dame on Oct. 8 was played in a hurricane and with nine inches of water soaking the field. Putting those stats (5-12, 27 yards) aside, Finley had the kind of numbers you would expect from a first-time starter.
In the eight ACC games and the bowl game, Finley completed 177 of 309 passes for 2,310 yards. He had 11 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Those numbers will need to get better next season for the Wolfpack to make a jump from seven wins.
His deep-ball accuracy (15 of 43), and willingness to take more shots (43 of 309), needs to improve next season but Finley showed a grasp of the offense and the ability to get the ball to the right people to make plays.
▪ N.C. State committed a season-low one penalty and that was a meaningless 5-yarder for kicking the ball off out of bounds. The Wolfpack had four games with eight penalties or more and, not surprisingly, went 1-3 in those games.
N.C. State can’t afford to beat itself. If it learns nothing else this season, that would be a good baseline.
It was Vanderbilt that made the silly mistakes with some early pass interference calls, a missed 27-yard field goal and a dropped touchdown pass.
It’s amazing what happens when you just clean up your own mistakes and let the other team implode.
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio