NC State began the Belk Bowl with a turnover and things only got worse from there as the Pack suffered a 51-28 thumping at the hands of Mississippi State. Pack Pride takes a look back at the Wolfpack's season-ending loss.
In A Nutshell
As has been the case in virtually all of State's losses this year, the Wolfpack's offense looked confounded at times. When forced to pass, State was unable to protect Jacoby Brissett and that turned into something negative more often than not. Whatever the reason- either Brissett being unable to find anyone or receivers simply not getting open- the end result was the same as it's been in all six of State's losses. The Pack was simply void of answers offensively to sustain enough drives to keep pace with Mississippi State. Defensively things were even worse. The Bulldogs were able to grind their way up and down the field with QB Dak Prescott completing 25 of 42 passes for 380 yards and four touchdowns despite playing in a driving rain storm.
Wolfpack Dominated In The Trenches
In a game played in those type conditions, winning the line of scrimmage is even more crucial and the Pack was owned on both sides of the ball. Brissett was sacked five times and while State did manage 210 yards on the ground, it simply wasn't enough to sustain the number of drives needed to keep the Pack in the game.
Perhaps even more disappointing was the play of the Pack's defensive line. This is supposed to be one of the team's strengths and when they've struggled, so has the Wolfpack. Prescott had way too much time to throw and State was unable to stop him whenever he decided to run. He didn't put up big numbers on the ground but what he was able to do was continue drives.
The Disappearing Playmaker
Perhaps one of the more baffling themes of 2015 was the case of the disappearing playmaker. How does your best offensive player (Jaylen Samuels) only get four touches? How does your your best (David Grinnage) pass-catcher only have two catches? Perhaps Mississippi State took them away but it's hard to fathom how Samuels couldn't have touched the ball more. Maybe it doesn't impact the end result of the game but you have to find a way to get the ball to your best players.
NC State's offense had it's fair share of problems but some of the disappointment there comes from the fact that the defense put them in the impossible position of having to score virtually every time they had the ball. The Pack scored 104 points in its final three games. That's nearly 35 points per game and should be enough to give you a chance to win. Other than the Syracuse game it wasn't nearly enough and that lies completely at the feet of the defense.
How a team can throw for 380 yards and four touchdowns in a monsoon is unfathomable. Prescott had all day to throw and he had huge windows in which to throw. The Pack rushed four and dropped seven for the majority of the game and the Bulldogs handled it with ease. State never mixed things up and that allowed Mississippi State to get into an offensive rhythm that the Pack could never disrupt.
What a Difference a Year Makes
NC State closed out 2014 with three straight wins. The Pack finished 2015 by losing three of four. State concluded last season with a ton of momentum and optimism. Conversely, the Wolfpack heads into 2016 with more questions than answers. The Pack was able to recruit from a position of strength headed into January of last year but the Wolfpack coaches won't enjoy that same advantage this year with the 2015 season grinding to a halt in Charlotte.
More Questions Than Answers
Here's an obvious statement- NC State HAS to get better in 2016. To do that they have to answer a ton of questions. The biggest- can a quarterback with no meaningful game experience make the Pack better on offense? Who will replace State's best offensive lineman, Joe Thuney? Can Matt Dayes return to his early 2015 form? Will any of the receivers emerge as a legitimate offensive weapon? Can Kyle Bambard become more consistent kicking the ball? Does anyone step up and become that go-to playmaker on defense? Can the Pack figure out how to avoid giving up huge plays on defense? Will the defensive line finally grow into the unit that can succeed against the better competition on the schedule?
Hypothetically State could be better in 2016 and it not reflect in the win-loss column. A schedule loaded with bowl teams like Clemson, Florida State, Louisville, UNC, Miami and Notre Dame is daunting. 2016 is absolutely critical for Dave Doeren because of the implications it has in 2017. The harsh reality is his team has to improve in the face of a brutal schedule so that he can avoid the "hot seat" label headed into the following season. That scenario would be a killer on the recruiting trail and could spell big trouble for the long term success of the program.
Make no mistake, there are pieces available that can make the Pack successful but State is going to need nearly all of them to fall into place. Jalan McClendon probably has a better arm than Brissett but can he get the between-the-ears part. Jakobi Meyers impressed early on before an injury set him back. However, he's a guy that could provide the run threat in the passing game that could help counter potential issues on the offensive line. Emanuel McGirt is probably the most talented offensive lineman recruited by Dave Doeren and he'll get his opportunity next season. Johnny Frasier has slowly come along and folks have been raving about him behind the scenes. The Pack will add some much needed albeit inexperienced speed to compliment Nyheim Hines. Wideouts Freddie Simmons and Brian Sessoms will be an upgrade in the speed department.
Defensively, the vast majority of the defense will return. That could be a positive or a negative depending on your point of view but State will have a ton of experience returning and that part, at least, is unquestioned. Emmanuel Olenga could give State a true speed guy off the edge and we've heard a lot of good things about Tyrone Riley.
State desperately needs all of these parts to come together next season. Success will be based on beating at least a couple of teams that State isn't supposed to beat and that's something that has eluded the Pack under Doeren. If the Wolfpack is able to pull it off then the entire perception of the program likely changes headed into 2017.