No. 24 Wolfpack powers on with another program win
Posted October 6
Raleigh, N.C. — Dave Doeren teeters on "I told you so," at this point. Halfway through his fifth season in Raleigh, he falls just short of saying those exact words.
No. 24 NC State soundly beat No. 17 Louisville 39-25 Thursday night, never trailing and staying undefeated in conference play. The win is the Wolfpack's second defeat of a (higher) ranked opponent this season – that's the first time this program did that since 2010 – but it isn't a victory that surprises the head coach or any of his players. It's what they expected to happen, they said it before and they said it after.
“I told our team it was coming, told y’all it was coming – some of you believed me, some of you didn’t," Doeren said.
He's earned that line. The proof, finally, is on the field. Game One was a head scratcher – moreso in light of games in Week Four and Week Six – but outlier aside, the Wolfpack is the team it was supposed to be this season.
NC State contained the reigning Heisman Trophy winner – if a 354-passing-yard and 102-rushing yard game can be called that – as well as a team can. More importantly, the Pack beat him.
Bradley Chubb made it clear that the heralded defensive front would dominate the Cardinals' (4-2, 2-2 ACC) offensive line as it should and show last season's best college player in the nation no mercy on Lamar Jackson's second snap Thursday.
The four-yard backup set the tone, and NC State's offense followed suit on its first opportunity -- well, mostly.
Ryan Finley connected four of his first five passes on a nine-play, 54-yard opening drive before fumbling on the Louisville 19-yard line. In the half-field drive, Doeren and offensive coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz showed off a chunk of their long list of playmakers -- Nyheim Hines, Jakobi Meyers, Jaylen Samuels, Stephen Louis and Kelvin Harmon shared the production. The Wolfpack put Meyers in at quarterback on second-and-goal from the 10-yard line despite steady production from the Finley-led offense to that point, the first turnover since Week One happened on the next play.
Wolfpack teams of old -- of inexperience, of less-than-100-percent buy-in and those perhaps which lost fewer games and learned less than the players on the field Thursday have -- would not recover as well as this 2017 team did. The record shows that.
These members of a program had no problem moving past the mistake.
Chubb got to Jackson for the second time of the night on the Cardinals' second drive, junior Eurndraus Bryant sacked the QB earlier on the same drive. Bobby Petrino chose to punt from the 36-yard line. It took another three-and-out for NC State's offense to finally get in the endzone, but once the Pack scored, it held the lead.
The first scoring drive showed resiliency, capability and smart execution. Center Garrett Bradbury left the field for a chest x-ray, his status for the remainder of the game announced as questionable. Two snaps later, Finley pushed thru a fourth-and-one conversion and the next play, connected with Harmon for the 48-yard score.
Louisville tied the game on the ensuing drive, but field goals on the Pack's following two drives separated the game by one touchdown at the halftime break.
Each time Louisville scored in the third quarter, NC State answered with a score of its own. There was a mathematically-odd two-point conversion in the fourth quarter, then a blocked PAT that made it somehow make sense.
Germaine Pratt intercepted Jackson with less than three minutes to play, evening the turnover battle and effectively sealing the game.
Proof of a program
A fan base so used to things going the opposite way ended the night cheering getting its due. It's neither luck nor karma, it's the evidence and product of a program of work.
Three of those five guys who moved the ball on the first drive finished with more than 100 yards of offense, plus Louis finished one yard shy of triple digit receiving yards: Harmon caught for 133 yards and Samuels for 104, Hines rushed for 102.
“I feel comfortable throwing to any of those guys one-on-one,” quarterback Finley said. “We have so much depth and they’re just big body, they’re just horses. You just throw it up and they go get it. For me, it’s in the back of my mind, I need to just give them a chance and they’ll go up and get it.
“We do a good job spreading the ball around, we’ve got so many guys who can rotate. We’re always fresh out there which is important.”
“Other than JaySam, you’ve got a bunch of players who just developed themselves," Doeren said.
The players are guys that had to go through that growth, though. The list of names doesn't align with the 'Who to Watch,' roster of wide receivers in the nation or even the conference. Not yet, anyway.
“It’s not a surprise that they make th(ose catches) in the game, but to make them on that stage is impressive and we’re going to keep feeding them," Finley said.
Finley is one of those players who did not arrive to Raleigh expected by anyone, perhaps outside of himself and his coach, to become what he is. The redshirt junior is "consistent, knows where the ball goes, make plays, a great game manager and distributor of the football and exactly what you want at that position," Doeren says, and finished 20-for-31 for 367 yards. He holds the ninth-best completion percentage in the nation and holds the longest streak for passes without an interception.
The defense was reliable and effective. The final drive blitzes paid the evident dividend in Pratt's pick-six, the pressure throughout the game was equally successful.
“We recruited these guys four years ago and have fed them for four years, a lot of food over the years," Doeren said. "And now we’ve got four NFL d(efensive) linemen.”
The pieces of the program that helped NC State to this point, Director of Strength and Conditioning Dantonio Burnette getting a special shoutout, are only as capable as this team is now because of the growing pains they endured.
“It takes time, guys have to mature into what they can be, they have to understand,” Doeren said. “We’ve had a lot of kids here for a long period of time who’ve learned how to prepare and do things right. What happens is you get a couple young guys who get thrown in with all those guys and they make them do it that way. ‘This is what you’re doing or Bradley Chubb’s going to be all over you.’
“We have a culture right now that has taken time to build and I’m thankful that I’ve had that time to do it, but right now, it’s taking care of itself.“
It's part of the 'I told you so,' sentiment that comes from the players as subtly as it comes from a proud -- but neither rude nor arrogant -- Doeren.
“We come into every game knowing that nobody can beat us," Samuels said. "We know what we’ve got and we know what we can accomplish.”
Red zone stalls won't be enough against the No. 2 Clemson Tigers (5-0, 3-0 ACC) in three weeks. Dabo Swinney's team may be the nation's top-ranked team by then, they're playing like the reigning National Champions they are already this year.
But right now, NC State is every bit what it said it would be.