NC State football not sharp, but victorious nevertheless

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Sixth-year senior quarterback Ryan Finley threw for 309 yards and two scores but was not satisfied after the win.

If you are looking for a word to describe NC State football’s season-opening performance, sharp would not be it.

It showed on the opening kick. The fall had a chance to get off to an exponentially better start than a year ago. JMU senior running back Marcus Marshall muffed the kickoff and NC State would have had the Dukes pinned inside the 10, a far cry from when South Carolina receiver Deebo Samuel returned the opening kick to the house a year ago in Charlotte.

But NC State was offside on the kick. Marshall and JMU had a do-over and ended up at the 26-yard line.

On a season-opening drive for the Pack offense that appeared poised to end in a touchdown to give NC State an early lead, fifth-year senior center Garrett Bradbury negated what would have been a third and short inside the James Madison 15 with a holding penalty, forcing second and 18 at the 26 instead. On the next play, a swing pass to true freshman and converted running back Tyler Baker-Williams ended in a fumble at the 32.

James Madison then scored a touchdown on its next drive, aided by a 15-yard late hit penalty on junior cornerback Kishawn Miller. Both Baker-Williams and Miller, making their Wolfpack debuts, were not seen much, if at all, after that.

NC State seemed to have righted the ship by halftime, executing the two-minute offense before the break with a touchdown with 18 seconds left in the half, giving the Pack a 17-7 lead with the advantage of having the ball to start the second half. Then the opening possession after the break resulted in a false start and seven-yard loss on a pass, forcing fourth and 22 at its own 13-yard line.

Then senior punter A.J. Cole, one of the greatest at his craft in school history, booted just a 29-yard punt to give James Madison the ball at the NCSU 42. The Pack was perhaps fortunate that JMU conservatively decided to kick a 19-yard field goal instead of going for it on fourth and one at the 3-yard line.

“We beat ourselves to start both halves,” head coach Dave Doeren stated.

In game one, NC State flashed enough for the glass half-full personalities. Redshirt junior Jakobi Meyers was dominant, catching 14 passes for 161 yards, and sixth-year senior quarterback Ryan Finley was what you expected, completing 29 of 43 passes for 309 yards and two scores without turning it over.

NC State was also playing far from a full hand. Fifth-year senior receiver Stephen Louis and redshirt junior nickel Stephen Griffin, both projected starters, missed the game with injuries. Senior defensive tackle Eurndraus Bryant, in a scary moment at the end of the first half, had to be carted off the field on a stretcher but X-rays were negative.

The tight end position was also decimated, as redshirt sophomores Dylan Parham and Dylan Autenrieth missed the contest with injuries and redshirt sophomore Cary Angeline missing the first three games before he is eligible.

For the glass half-empty crowd, JMU was not exactly full strength either, especially on defense where star corner senior Rashad Robinson, the preseason Colonial Athletic Association Defensive Player of the Year, is out for the season with an injury, and fifth-year senior defensive end Darrious Carter, who had 8.5 sacks a year ago, suspended a game.

The new-name NC State defense held JMU to 365 total yards, but the Dukes starting quarterback, Pitt grad transfer Ben DiNucci, completed 23 of 27 passes for 197 yards and a touchdown and ran 14 times for 79 yards. If he can get that comfortable against the Pack, what could Heisman Trophy contender Will Grier of West Virginia do in two weeks?

Glass half-full: NC State stopped James Madison three times inside the red zone, forcing two 19-yard field goals and getting a turnover. Glass half-empty: other, better opponents are going to be hard to stop and the turnover may have simply been a case of DiNucci losing his grip on the football as he was eluding pressure and trying to throw at the same time.

The undisputed good news is that NC State won. It dodged defeat against a sneaky dangerous opponent in James Madison that was 28-2 in its last two seasons with two appearances in the Football Championship Subdivision title game, winning it all in 2016. It is ranked No. 2 in the FCS preseason coaches’ poll.

That makes the learning lessons, like those self-inflicted mistakes to start the halves, a bit easier to digest.

“Those kind of things tomorrow we are going to have real fun conversations about, but today they are learning opportunities and we keep it positive,” Doeren said.

“A lot we need to improve on,” Finley bluntly assessed.

The most encouraging sign is when it mattered most, Finley and the offense came through. Leading 17-13 with 6:59 left and taking over at its own 18, the Pack took 10 plays to go the 84 yards, converting a trio of third downs (including two third and nines), and scoring on a 6-yard touchdown run with just 1:05 left from senior running back Reggie Gallaspy Jr.

“Tonight I am going to be happy because I am 1-0,” Doeren said.

So perhaps the best word to use describe NC State after game one: victorious.

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