Doeren’s first senior class shows standard for program in Sun Bowl win
NC State’s 52-31 Sun Bowl victory against Arizona State matched the Pack’s talent and its potential to end a season that raised the bar in Raleigh.
“We have records being broken in this game -- the all-time leading receiver here in Jaylen Samuels, we have a 3,000-yard passer in Ryan Finley, a 1,000-yard receiver in Kelvin Harmon and a 1,000-yard rusher in Nyheim Hines,” head coach Dave Doeren said after the game.
Those are offensive numbers no collection of players on any other team in the ACC this season can match.
“It’s hard to think about life without a bunch of these dudes,” Doeren said.
In the first season with a senior class all his own, the fifth-year head coach saw his team ranked as high as No. 14 in the AP Poll and wrapped up the year ranked No. 24 in ESPN’s College Football Playoff rankings.
The Wolfpack’s (9-4, 6-2 ACC) finale was the third bowl win -- including wins versus Vanderbilt in 2016 and UCF in 2014 -- in four straight trips to the postseason, and the team is just the 12th in program history to win nine games.
NC State never trailed as Hines paced the Pack with three five-yard touchdowns in the first half, and Jakobi Meyers caught the only Pack passing TD just before the break. Reggie Gallaspy II scored two touchdowns on the ground in the second half, and Samuels added one to finish his career with 47 career scores.
“I didn’t think there was a moment in the game where we weren’t in control,” Finley said. “Offensively, it ended in a dominating fashion.”
Samuels caught a 21-yard pass in the third quarter to set a new career record for most catches, passing both Jerricho Cotchery (who held the record entering the year with 200 catches) and Torry Holt. The all-purpose player, for whom the ACC created a new category of all-conference voting this season, caught a seventh pass later in the game to set the new mark at 202 catches.
“I definitely knew how close I was. I knew I was six catches away,” Samuels said. “That was really one of the biggest reasons why I played in this bowl game.
“I accomplished it. I had a heck of a season here, a heck of a career here.”
“We probably had 10 plays that we designed to get him the ball no matter what, we were not going to leave this game without him getting that,” Finley said. “I made sure whenever he got it, we were able to get that ball to the sideline for him and replace it.”
Along with Samuels, senior offensive guard Tony Adams -- who finishes with the record for most snaps by a Pack o-lineman (3,358) -- lead a line of four redshirt juniors which allowed the sixth-fewest sacks in the nation and absolute fewest in the conference.
The unit paved the way for junior playmakers: for Hines’ and Harmon’s 1,000-plus-yard years and Finley’s 3,518-yard season.
Questions about whether or not senior defensive end Bradley Chubb would play in the season finale headlined the month leading up to the Wolfpack’s Sun Bowl tilt against Arizona State. Doeren insisted the team was “not going to talk about it,” and shared that Chubb would travel to El Paso.
Chubb sat out to protect his future, one that is predicted to include early first-round selection in the 2018 NFL Draft. His classmates on the defensive line, BJ Hill, Justin Jones and defensive MVP Kentavius Street once more proved they were always more than just a supporting class for the star.
The truth of the matter is, even after all the records broken and marks hit for the first time in several seasons, NC State didn’t break through the program’s true ceiling.
While the first nine-win season since 2010 fell short of the talent on this team and a higher number of wins that this roster should have been capable of, the senior class and the season proved just how far the Pack program has come and how much further it can go.
Arguably, that defensive line -- the only all-senior starters unit on the team -- is a best-guess for where NC State would show drop off next year.
With his hand on his receiver’s chest, Doeren told wide receiver Stephen Louis postgame that he is a senior. The Sun Bowl was more than just a senior sayonara, it was the senior starter for the class of 2019.
No juniors have publicly announced they won’t return to continue what they are building, meaning a returning senior class could include Louis (three catches for 115 yards in the bowl, 583 yards in 11 games), Hines, Finley and Gallaspy (548 yards on the season) plus four of five starting offensive linemen.
While Finley is weighing his collegiate and professional options, he also sees the Sun Bowl win -- the first 50-plus-point game for NC State against a Power Five opponent since 2011 as the type of win that will “springboard you into spring ball. I think that’s what we did here,” he said.
“Top 25 is the standard we want for the program. This senior class got us to this point,” Doeren said. “That’s where we live at this point, and it’s where we want to continue to climb.
“This was a legacy opportunity for our senior class. That’ll be (the next senior class’) job to continue that going forward.”