NC State lost the Pop-Tarts, saving it from the fate of having to eat a toasted Pop-Tart, which is the wrong way to eat Pop-Tarts, not matter how much Pop-aganda Essad throws at you. Frankly, I consider it a win.
It does stink to miss the frosted cherry on top of an excellent season, especially when you realize how gettable this game truly was. Things happen, though. Sometimes stuff happens too. It is what it is, and that’s the way it goes sometimes. Cliches are my thing now. That’s just the candy’s corn. I made that one up. Anyway, on to the game that was played with house money.
Missed Popportunities . . . Popportartities? Popportunitarts? Nah, that ain’t it.
Defensively, State was not great in the first half. The game’s opening drive was the worst sequence the defense put on film since at least the Duke game. It was just so undisciplined, something that’s out of character for the Tony Gibson defenses we’ve watched, particularly with the missed tackles. State missed Payton Wilson here, but the other 10 starters are not this bad at tackling.
Things shored up for the Pack in the second half, and I feel comfortable saying it was the better team over the last 40ish minutes of the game, but it wasn’t so much better that it was overcoming the 14-point hole it had already dug. That’s kind of the macro-level story. Kansas State is really good. NC State is also really good. They played a relatively evenly-matched game, but State made a few more errors. That’s often what decides the tight ones.
Offensively, State committed to the strongest part of its game, which is obviously the quarterback run game. This has been the basis for the offense down the stretch, a lot of QB counter, slide RPO, and other run-first concepts that give Armstrong’s legs a chance to make things happen. It was everywhere in the first half, and it’s not as if it didn’t work. State averaged a respectable 6 yards per play and three of its five possessions during the first two quarters cracked the redzone. It scored 10 points, though.
Lesane’s drop at the end of the first half cost State four points. Getting stood up on 4th and 1 at the 10 was unfortunate. Two scoring opportunities inside the 10 producing three points ultimately becomes the story of the game.
Kansas State’s offense was nothing noteworthy. It was solid, far from great, far from terrible. The game was actually very evenly matched statistically. State averaged 6.4 yards per play. Kansas State averaged 6.1. It’s nearly exactly even if you remove the fake punts. K-State crossed the State 40 yard-line five times, though, and scored touchdowns on four of those drives. The other ended in a kneel down. The Pack crossed the plus-40 six times, but only managed to find the endzone twice and was held off the scoreboard twice.
The plays that stood out
Busted coverage leads to a touchdown
It's a tone-setting 4th and 5 early in the evening. State has a chance to bail itself out after a few poor tackling efforts to start the game. It’s a zero-blitz, meaning man coverage across the board with no safety help. The K-State running back may pass block here or run a route, and you have to have both accounted for. Instead, Brown runs by it.
Referees forget the rules
The Wildcats scored a late first-half touchdown that never should have happened. K-State converted a critical third-down with a QB run that would have been stopped by Caden Fordham had he not been literally tackled. He beats the tackle outside, and the tackle just grabs him, and this is just fine apparently. It’s right at the point of attack. This play is going nowhere otherwise. Reprimandable stuff.
Touchdown pass gets dropped
State is trying to cut this to a one-possession game before the half. It has one play here, and it dials up this smash concept to the boundary. Smash is a corner route from the inside receiver and some sort of shallow route, usually a stick or a hook, from the outside receiver. Armstrong actually progresses back to this after the route combo to the other side is not there.
With only three underneath, there is a lot of ground to cover for the flat defender, which is number 41 for Kansas State, and he also has to haul butt to get over there after showing blitz pre-snap. The corner route takes the cornerback toward the back pylon and the flat defender doesn’t immediately widen to Lesane after getting to his spot, so he’s wide open. The ball is good and leads him away from the flat defender. It’s all there. He just drops it.
Two-point conversion gets foiled
State’s play to tie the game was a good draw-up, but better defense. The Pack is trying to get a rub here for Concepcion. The routes of Lesane and Pennix are designed to create traffic for KC to run under. It’s a man-coverage beater that is as old as time around the goal line. The Wildcats have it sniffed out though, and they switch off the responsibility for Concepcion, preventing the cover man from getting caught up in the traffic.
3rd and 2 slant gets missed
This was a tough one for me. There was a lot of chatter about how open KC was, and I hear ya, but there is a lot going on during this play. It didn’t make it in the GIF for file size reasons, but Armstrong gets Kansas State to show their blitz with the hard count, and he audibles into this play with both KC and Rozner running slants. The mike linebacker is going to be a spy, and it’s man across the board other than that. Armstrong is hot here. There is going to be an unblocked blitzer, so that ball has to come out. You don’t get to survey the field on a play like this. You have to pick your matchup.
That spy is probably going to be in the throwing window to KC. Rozner is probably the right decision. I feel rather confident saying that if Armstrong sees man and doesn’t immediately look to KC, it’s not for no reason. Rozner gets jammed a bit at the line and has a little bit of an awkward release, and then the throw is high anyway. It’s still there, but Armstrong misses and State punts away what would prove to be its first-to-last real shot.
Where we go now
This has been a rather negative review. State lost, and it was the last game of the season, so there’s nothing to talk about other than the game itself, which it lost. You can see how we got here, but truthfully, this was just whatever. If you took this loss as some sort of referendum on the program, you should get some sleep, maybe take an Ambien. This is one of the most meaningless losses in NC State history.
Two good teams played a football game that took four quarters to decide. One of them made a few more mistakes and lost. It’s not a product of preparation. It’s not a product of Doeren’s ceiling. It’s not a product of some bog witch’s curse from 1887. It’s just what happened. When you have a team that can't stop shooting itself in the foot to the point where it's a trend, that prompts some higher-level concerns. NC State is not that, though, and this team was pretty nails at taking advantage of every opportunity through the five-game winning streak.
This was a very flawed football team that went 9-4 and finished 5-1. It improved dramatically at a number of things throughout the year. The offensive line played much better. The running back play improved. The play calling began to build around the strengths that were starting to show. Other things still lingered, though.
Armstrong is limited as a passer against defenses not coordinated by Gene Chizik. He has iffy pocket presence and his accuracy is a roller coaster. State still has just one wide receiver it can depend on. These things showed up on Thursday night, and it’s a testament to the growth in other areas that it took this long for such a thing to bite them in the back half of the season. There is no magic trick to fix everything. What the staff managed to do was about as close as you can get, though.
At the end of the day, State just had a very successful and wildly satisfying football season. If you want a loss in the Pop-Tarts Bowl to invalidate all of that, that’s your choice. I’d rather enjoy things. State is still in a phenomenal place as a program, and the offensive rebuild that started with hiring Anae is ahead of schedule. What it all adds up to in the end, I have no clue, but the fact that you can follow up this year with the optimism of the coming year is reason enough to not measure the program by how many edible mascots it got to eat.