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Ken Martin/The Wolfpacker
CHARLOTTE — The best team on this day won the game, but that does not necessarily mean the better squad left as victors.
The younger South Carolina team played with more veteran poise than the older NCSU group, delivering a relatively clean football performance while NC State made a head-hurting number of mistakes .
From the first half alone:
• NC State gave up a kickoff return for a touchdown on the game’s first play, missing two tackles in the process.
• Redshirt sophomore safety Jarius Morehead dropped an interception on South Carolina’s first possession with the score tied 7-7. Four plays later, talented Gamecocks sophomore quarterback Jake Bentley connected with sophomore running back Rico Dowdle for an easy 34-yard touchdown on an apparent blown coverage.
• Redshirt junior receiver Stephen Louis fumbled the ball at the South Carolina 40-yard line with the game tied 14-14, setting up a short field for the Gamecocks. Bentley then deftly escaped a sack on third and 12 for a 13-yard scramble to continue what would be a touchdown-scoring drive.
• Redshirt junior kicker Carson Wise missed a short 29-yard field goal to potentially answer that South Carolina score.
Despite all that, the score was still tied thanks to a beautifully executed two-minute drill from the Pack to score with nine seconds before halftime. The feeling in the press box was if NC State played a mistake-free half of football it would be OK.
They didn't, and they weren't.
• Bentley once again escaped a sack, this time by NCSU junior nickel Freddie Phillips Jr., who would be injured on the play, and connected with Samuel, who made a spectacular one-handed catch in the end zone for a 39-yard touchdown. The drive was set up by 26-yard punt return that could have gone longer had South Carolina senior defensive back Chris Lammons not tripped on his own two feet, giving South Carolina the ball at its own 49-yard line.
• On the ensuing drive, NC State redshirt junior quarterback Ryan Finley was sacked, twisted his ankle and in the process fumbled at the NC State 13. Two plays later, Dowdle broke a tackle at the line of scrimmage and scored a 7-yard touchdown.
• By the fourth quarter, the Pack seemed to reestablish momentum. It forced a pair of South Carolina three and outs (the Gamecocks would have only one first down after its final TD of the game). Then NC State scored a touchdown on fourth and goal from the one to make it 35-28 with 12:21 left.
Fifth-year senior Johnathan Alston intercepted Bentley on third down to give the Pack the ball at their own 31. The drive stalled when on third and two at the South Carolina 33, a first-down pass was taken off the board by an offensive pass interference penalty on senior tight end Cole Cook. NCSU punted two plays later.
• After forcing another South Carolina punt, NC State was at the Gamecock 35 when senior H-Back Jaylen Samuels dropped a sure first down on third and five. One play later, on the same exact play call, Samuels made the catch but was ruled an inch or two short of the first down.
• On the Pack's final drive, Finley dropped a beautiful long pass into the hands of redshirt sophomore receiver Jakobi Meyers that would have given NC State the ball inside South Carolina’s 40 with just under three minutes left and two timeouts, but Meyers dropped it. NCSU did eventually get to first and goal at the eight with about 30 seconds left, but could not punch it in.
This exhaustive rundown of miscues above dwarfs likely anything South Carolina will find on its film, but that is to the Gamecocks’ credit. That is why it was the better team Saturday. Bentley made plays with both his legs and arms, and Samuel lived up to his reputation as one of the best playmakers in the SEC.
When fans see the box score, they will be amazed. NC State had 29 first downs compared to 12 for South Carolina. NCSU finished with 504 total yards, and South Carolina had just 246. The Pack had a time of possession advantage of 36:41 compared to 23:19 for S.C. The Gamecocks ran for only 31 yards (not that NCSU’s 89 was much better).
But not seen in the box score is hidden yardage: surrendering too many special teams big plays, giving South Carolina a short field with a couple of costly turnovers, missing tackles that could have gone for negative yards and dropping passes that would have been first downs.
If NC State had cut their mistakes in half, it is probably a different discussion after the game. But would’ve and could’ve do not change the result. The bottom line is NC State dropped a game it could have won, and South Carolina emerged with a nice win to its credit.
The season is certainly not over for NC State. The only thing that changed Saturday was that SEC Network’s Cole Cubelic prognostication skills have taken a severe blow (he picked the Wolfpack to be in the College Football Playoff), but there is still plenty to play for from NCSU’s perspective.
But first things first: clean up the mistakes.
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