N.C. State wasn’t supposed to need “wouldas” and “couldas” this year, not with so many of the same players back from last year and the promise of a breakthrough from the rut of mediocrity.
Instead, after Saturday’s disappointing 35-28 loss to South Carolina in Charlotte, the Wolfpack players (and fans) are left asking: what now? The dejection felt all too familiar to senior receiver/running back Jaylen Samuels.
“We’ve been through this a lot of times,” said Samuels, who equaled a school record for catches with 15 (for 85 yards) and scored a touchdown.
Samuels is right, this group has experienced dejection before – notably in difficult losses to East Carolina, Clemson and Florida State last season – and it looked and felt a lot like this. There were the usual regrets for the Wolfpack after it somehow out-gained the Gamecocks 504 to 246 and had 17 more first downs but still lost.
There were two fumbles (both turned into touchdowns by South Carolina), too many penalties (eight for 65 yards) and too many missed chances – a short missed field goal (from 29 yards) and a dropped interception (sound familiar?)
“We have to capitalize and execute and think about the little details we go through every week,” Samuels said.
The worst feeling, for all the players and Dave Doeren and all the coaches, is knowing they could have played a cleaner, smarter game.
“I just asked everybody in the room is that our best and they said no,” Doeren said. “That’s what we have to figure out: how to make that one, two or three or four more plays we were in position to make.”
South Carolina, in Will Muschamp’s second season, figured out the winning formula on Saturday. There was a one-handed 39-yard touchdown catch by receiver Deebo Samuel to break a 21-21 tie in the third quarter. Defensive end Dante Sawyer had a sack and forced a fumble to set up the offense at N.C. State’s 14-yard line and what turned out to be the game-deciding touchdown. The Gamecocks’ defense made a stand at after N.C. State reached the 8-yard line in the final seconds.
South Carolina was supposed to be the team still rebuilding, 6-7 in Muschamp’s first season, and N.C. State, in Doeren’s fifth year, was expected to pick up where it left off, winning three of its final four games in 2016. One ESPN analyst even picked the Wolfpack, 7-6 a year, to make the College Football Playoff.
Hype and hysteria aside, where N.C. State finds itself after Saturday’s disappointment is closer to where the program was after its high-profile opener in 2012. That also happened to be a loss to an SEC East team (Tennessee) at a neutral site (Atlanta). Much was expected of that N.C. State team, too. Instead of putting everything together on the national stage and providing a milestone win, N.C. State is left with another bitter cup of disappointment.
“Everybody is a little mad right now, but tomorrow we’ve got to get over it,” senior defensive end Bradley Chubb said.
In Year 6, that Tennessee loss started a downward spiral for coach Tom O’Brien, who was fired after 7-5 finish to the regular season.
Doeren was hired to replace O’Brien to elevate the program to a top 25 level. That hasn’t happened yet. This is still Doeren’s best chance to do that, but he now finds himself in a similar predicament to O’Brien’s in 2012.
N.C. State was able to regroup from those painful losses last season. The Wolfpack will have to figure out a way to do it again. Everybody gets a second chance but not many get a third.
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio