Luke DeCock

DeCock: Bowl loss leaves Wolfpack stuck in the middle

N.C. State’s Nyheim Hines (7) hugs quarterback Jacoby Brissett (12) after Mississippi State’s 51-28 victory over N.C. State in the Belk Bowl on Wednesday.
N.C. State’s Nyheim Hines (7) hugs quarterback Jacoby Brissett (12) after Mississippi State’s 51-28 victory over N.C. State in the Belk Bowl on Wednesday. ehyman@newsobserver.com

The most shocking part about what happened to N.C. State on Wednesday was how predictable it turned out to be. Over the past three seasons, the Wolfpack has almost unerringly lost to above-average teams while beating below-average teams. This year, its record was perfect in that respect.

The Wolfpack fell to 0-6 against bowl-eligible teams after going 7-0 against the dregs, with a 51-28 loss to Mississippi State in the Belk Bowl on Wednesday that left N.C. State’s fans with raindrops falling on their heads and cowbells ringing in their ears.

“We underachieved a little bit,” N.C. State defensive back Juston Burris said. “We could have done better. We hold ourselves to a very high standard. Seven wins, that’s not the type of team we are. We’re not a seven-win team.”

That is, unfortunately for the Wolfpack, what the only metric that matters says about the season. When you only beat bad teams and don’t beat good ones, you unavoidably end up in the neighborhood of .500 – 8-5 last season, 7-6 this season. Whatever the Mendoza Line of college football is, the Wolfpack is astride it.

The unquestioned N.C. State highlight Wednesday was defensive lineman-turned-tight end Pharoah McKever’s 88-yard catch-and-run touchdown which, in any other year, might be the best running performance by someone named Pharoah. Just as McKever was outdone by a horse of similar name, the Wolfpack was outdone by a university of similar nickname.

Pac-12 referee Michael Batlan even misidentified the Wolfpack as “North Dakota State,” apparently confused by the plethora of States involved. The Bison are playing for a national title, albeit at the FCS level. N.C. State remains in the soft middle of the big leagues, and if anything took a step backward this fall against a schedule that wasn’t exactly challenging. In its final two games, the Wolfpack lurched to unrecoverable first-half deficits of 35-7 against North Carolina and 21-0 against Mississippi State, losing both despite second-half surges.

“We were competitive in every game that we played in the regular season this year without a doubt, which we weren’t the year before,” N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said. “We need to be better. We need to win some of those competitive one-possession games and be a four-quarter team. We’ve been able to do that in some games but not consistently. To take the next step, that’s our goal. Being in Year 4 with several returning starters, we have an opportunity to do that.”

Absent a bowl win, the most fondly remembered moments of this Wolfpack season will be streak-breaking wins at Boston College and Wake Forest – N.C. State’s first ACC win in Chestnut Hill and first in Winston-Salem since 2001 – and a home win over Syracuse, but since those teams combined to go 10-26 this season, that’s clearing a low bar for a team that chose “raise the bar” as its mantra.

Given all that, a win over Mississippi State would have put an entirely different spin on the season – “a game that could have changed your program,” N.C. State defensive end Mike Rose said.

With N.C. State’s loss, Duke carried the Triangle’s postseason mail, with a Pinstripe Bowl win over Indiana that gave the three teams 26 total wins, setting a new record before Baylor ran all over North Carolina in the Russell Athletic Bowl and Mississippi State threw all over N.C. State on Wednesday, with quarterback Dak Prescott setting Belk Bowl records for passing yards (380) and total offense (427).

N.C. State’s continuing inability to gain any traction against college football’s better half is a disconcerting trend for several reasons, not least because N.C. State jumps into the deep end of the pool next season. With Notre Dame on the schedule along with a trip to East Carolina and ACC crossover games against North Carolina and Mark Richt-coached Miami, not to mention the usual Atlantic Division gauntlet, N.C. State has a lot of ground to cover between now and September.

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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