Don't blame the defense for this loss -- or any of WVU's other three defeats in 2010. Guys like Thomas did all they could all year long, truly making good on the promise that was discussed in preseason.
The senior linebacker led all players in the Champs Sports Bowl with 10 total tackles, including eight solo stops and two assisted takedowns.
He didn't have any sacks or tackles for loss, didn't force or recover any fumbles and didn't earn any interceptions or pass break-ups. But who cares? Thomas was, as always, assignment sound and aggressive in attacking his responsibilities.
Sure, N.C. State managed 23 points -- the most of any Mountaineer opponent all year long. But the Wolfpack sustained only two scoring drives of any significant length, using good field position to great effect in other situations.
Facing guys like Thomas, it's tough to make drives down the field. That's why turnovers and special teams miscues (more on those in a bit) proved so costly, as they were all season, for West Virginia.
Some folks may expect defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel to just plug in new players next year and crank out another stellar defense, but it likely won't be that easy. It might not be until next year that people truly realize how special the 2010 defense was for WVU, and that's the case because of guys like Thomas.
OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE GAME:
Admittedly, it didn't exactly bode well for the Mountaineers that Bailey earned this honor with a somewhat pedestrian statistical line: four catches, 61 yards (a team-high, albeit by only three yards) and one touchdown.
Bailey was on the receiving end of WVU's only score of the game, providing one of the team's few highlights in this Champs Sports Bowl by leaping high into the air and outfighting a cornerback for a 32-yard touchdown catch in the second half on what was a slightly underthrown ball from Smith, his high school teammate.
In the end, Bailey made one big play. That was one more than just about any other WVU offensive player made, and it was enough to earn him our top offensive honors.
It's nothing new to those that have followed this year's Mountaineers, and it's nothing even an offensive guru like Dana Holgorsen (who said as much in his introductory press conference in Morgantown last week) doesn't know as well: even the best offense will struggle to do enough to win games if it turns the ball over too often and makes other unforced errors.
West Virginia, as it did in every 2010 loss, did those things on Tuesday night. It turned the ball over five times. It fell victim to miscues like bad snaps, botched handoffs, muffed punts and other problems that had nothing to do with the opposition.
Add in a couple of missed field goals from Tyler Bitancurt, which served to keep N.C. State in control with a two-possession lead for much of the second half, and it was just too much for WVU to overcome.
There's a lot of optimism among fans about Holgorsen's offense and what it might be capable of -- and rightly so. But if his players can't solve some of these important problems between now and the start of 2011, it may not matter how good the new offensive coordinator's schemes are.
The reasons for their absences were different, and the impact each had was different. But make no mistake -- the loss of each of these Mountaineer contributors played a role in what transpired Tuesday night.
Hogan's replacement, Pat Miller, was never outright burnt. But the senior cornerback's loss left WVU shorthanded at a position it could ill-afford to be. Only five corners warmed up with position coach David Lockwood before the game, and given the fact that N.C. State quarterback Russell Wilson hooked up with a staggering 11 different receivers, the Mountaineers needed just about every warm body they could get.
Smith's absence led to a different rotation of the team's safeties, as the normal member of the "SWAT" team on defense wasn't there to do his job in obvious passing situations. The loss of Taylor, a key reserve defensive lineman, altered the rotation of players along the line of scrimmage and may have led to some fatigue issues for other players. It led to the heavier use of Bruce Irvin (who performed admirably).
But Madsen's loss may have had the biggest impact, causing multiple position shifts along an offensive line that has had issues all season long. There were bad snaps and mistakes in pass protection.
While Mullen, the team's offensive coordinator, didn't make himself available for postgame interviews for the first (and, at least at WVU, last) time, he didn't need to say that he didn't trust the team's offensive line. His play calls, which consisted of almost all quick-hitters in the passing game, showed it.
Irvin is expected to play more and more in his senior season next year. If his performance in an increased role on Tuesday night was any indication, he should ultimately be just fine.
With the Mountaineer defensive line losing stalwarts Scooter Berry and Chris Neild, Irvin will be seen as a leader at the line of scrimmage. Given the pass-happy attack of North Carolina State, Irvin got more chances to prove himself.
He acquitted himself well, registering sacks on both of his two tackles and adding a forced fumble and a quarterback hurry.
It wasn't all great for Irvin. He took angles towards Wilson that were a bit too wide on a couple of occasions early, allowing Wilson to get outside contain and make plays with his legs.
But that's to be expected from a guy who is, to be frank, still learning to play the role of a rush end. Those who watched Tuesday night's game from Irvin couldn't think much more than about the promise he has if he can learn a bit more of the nuances of the game while keeping a grasp on his incredible physical gifts.