Saturday was a day to forget for the NC State football team.
But that's not what we do here at SI All Wolfpack. Since it's our custom to look back at each game to evaluate what happened and why it happened, here's our review of the good, the bad and the offbeat from the Wolfpack's 48-21 loss to rival North Carolina in Chapel Hill:
It's tough to find anything good from a game dominated from start to finish by any opposition, let alone a hated rival. But if there was one positive to be taken from Saturday's loss in Chapel Hill, it's the contributions of true freshmen getting their first taste of college game action. The most encouraging of those performances was turned in by quarterback Ben Finley. Entering the game on State's fourth series with the Wolfpack already trailing 14-0, the younger brother of former State star Ryan Finley immediately breathed some life into the offense by driving it the length of the field. It's a possession that would have resulted in a touchdown had wide open tight end Dylan Parham not muffed the pass into an interception. Finley finally got his first career touchdown pass on the next possession by hitting Emeka Emezie for a 42-yard score that brought State to within 14-7. Finley looked more like a true freshman in the second half, but still finished 13 of 20 for 143 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. On the receiving end, youngsters Anthony Smith and Christopher Scott both made their first career catches. Smith had four receptions for 63 yards and a nice touchdown grab in traffic while Scott added two catches for 49 yards -- helping to make an already deep receiving corps just a little deeper.
Where to start? Of all the bad things that happened to the Wolfpack at Kenan Stadium, the worst was its performance against the run. After three strong weeks of defending the ground game in wins against Pittsburgh, Virginia and Duke, State reverted back to its early season struggles by allowing the Tar Heels rush for 326 yards. Two UNC backs ran for more than 100 yards each while combining for four touchdowns. Although Javonte Williams and Michael Carter Jr. are both quality backs, the biggest problem for State's defense was its tackling. Or lack thereof. According to PFF College, Williams forced 17 missed tackles on runs against the Wolfpack, the most in any game in the country this season. On one of his touchdown runs, he literally bulldozed freshman safety Devan Boykin on his way into the end zone. After the game, linebacker Isaiah Moore said that there were no excuses for the performance. "We’ve got to tackle them and get them to the ground," he said. He's 100% right.
Earlier in the season, the Wolfpack used a jump pass to score a touchdown in a goal line situation. Saturday, Doeren and his staff reached into their throwback bag of tricks for another antiquated strategy -- the quick kick. With State trailing by 17 early in the third quarter, facing a fourth-and-three situation near midfield, Finley lined up as if the Wolfpack was going for it. But instead of throwing the ball, the freshman quarterback punted it. And it was a good one, a 55-yarder that was downed at the 1-yard line.
PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Finley's first action as a member of the Wolfpack was an eventful one. Although he made a few mistakes, especially the fumble he lost while trying to make something out of nothing and avoiding a sack. But he also showed plenty of promise, especially with his cool under pressure. Before Finley came into the game, State had gained just 29 yards on 10 plays over its first three drives. The freshman's first drive went 61 yards on eight plays. He finished 13 of 20 for 143 yards through the air. While he did have two interceptions, both came on tipped passes -- the first as mentioned earlier on a ball his tight end should have caught for a touchdown.
Anthony Smith was wide open for what would almost certainly have been a touchdown during State's win at Pittsburgh earlier this season, but he made the classic freshman mistake by trying to run with the ball before catching it. But instead of setting him back, Smith used the drop as a learning experience. Saturday, he bounced back by making a tough 30-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter. It was one of his four receptions in the game, a total that tied for the team lead.
STAT OF THE GAME
Between Finley and Bailey Hockman, who started and finished the game, State threw for 358 yards in the game. That's the Wolfpack's highest total since accumulating 421 passing yards in the 2018 regular season finale against East Carolina. Hockman went 14 of 24 for 214 yards, a touchdown and an interception on the game's final play.
The Wolfpack started the game without starting free safety Tanner Ingle, who suffered a hamstring issue last week against Duke and offensive tackle Tyrone Riley, who was also hurt in the win. The injury situation got worse Saturday, especially after running back Ricky Person Jr. was taken from the field with what Doeren reported as a concussion after catching a swing pass early in the third quarter. Leading tackler Payton Wilson also got dinged up early, spending some time in the injury tent before returning to the game. He limped off several other times but still had eight tackles -- the second most on the team. Star offensive lineman Ickey Ekwonu was another casualty, limping off the field during the fourth quarter, although it didn't look serious after he hopped onto a stationary bike behind the Wolfpack bench. The good news is that with an open date next week, all the walking wounded will have some extra time to get healthy.
THEY SAID IT
"We’re all about telling the truth. Everyone in that locker room knows that they outplayed us. We all know what we’ve got to do going forward. We’re going to come in (Sunday) and watch the film, and we’re going to move on from it. We’ve got to learn from this. We’ve got to play better going forward." Junior linebacker Isaiah Moore
"One thing about these guys, they're not going to quit. It’s a great group of young men. They’re going to play hard. We just didn’t play good enough to win. We didn’t give ourselves a chance with the turnovers. Like I told them in the locker room, if you don’t stop the run and you turn the football over, it’s a really hard day. That’s what happened today. It wasn’t a lack of effort." Coach Dave Doeren
After playing six weeks in a row and reaching the halfway point of the 2020 season, the Wolfpack gets a well-deserved weekend off before returning to action with a Thursday night game against No. 12 Miami at Carter-Finley Stadium on Nov. 6.
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