RALEIGH — It would be easy to dismiss NC State’s 27-23 loss to Wake Forest on Thursday as the manifestation of a popular social media hashtag created to describe the misfortune that often follows the Wolfpack whenever things seem to be going its way.
One Twitter account — call it @NCSUCrap in the interest of good taste — actually did so within moments of the Deacons’ winning touchdown with a post proclaiming: “This is why this account exists.”
In reality, though, it wasn’t karma or some mysterious cosmic conspiracy that did in coach Dave Doeren’s heavily favored team against the Deacons, costing it any chance at a New Year’s Six bowl and an undefeated home season at Carter-Finley Stadium.
It was more an all-too-familiar combination of too many mistakes and too few red zone touchdowns.
“To say I’m disappointed would be an understatement,” Doeren said after watching his team squander a 10-point fourth-quarter lead and surrender the winning touchdown with just 30 seconds remaining. “We had a lot of opportunities, and there is a lot of things that happened throughout the course of the game that led to the result.
“There is a lot of critical downs in the red zone where we didn’t get touchdowns for a variety of reasons and settled for three field goals. We had some drops that were very uncharacteristic of guys on our team that cost us points or first downs. We didn’t win the line of scrimmage, offensive line against their defensive line. They did a nice job with their scheme and we didn’t adjust well enough.”
Although the painful end didn’t come until the game’s final minute when backup quarterback Jamie Newman hit tight end Jake Freudenthal across the middle for a 32-yard score, the ominous signs for the Wolfpack (6-3, 3-3 ACC) began almost from the opening kickoff.
The first came after Wake’s Greg Dortch tried to pick up a rolling punt and fumbled the ball away to the State at the Deacons’ 12-yard line. Instead of pounding the ball into the end zone and grabbing the early momentum, State ran three plays without gaining a yard and settled for a 29-yard field goal.
It was the first of three field goals for freshman Christopher Dunn, all of which were from inside 30 yards — the product of a Wolfpack offense that scored just one touchdown in five trips to the red zone.
State’s inability to finish drives was the continuation of a problem that began to show itself last week against Florida State. Even though State scored 47 points and won the game handily, it could have put up an even bigger number if it hadn’t settled for four field goals.
Doeren warned at the time that there would eventually be a price to pay if his team continued to rely so heavily on its accurate young kicker.
That bill came due Thursday.
“We have to be way better down there,” Doeren said of his team’s struggles inside the opponent’s 20. “You do not want to be in a situation where you’re under 50 percent touchdown-to-field goal in the red zone. It’s hard to win games like that.”
Some of State’s trouble Thursday was self-inflicted.
The most glaring of those mistakes came late in the third quarter when a wide open tight end Cary Angeline dropped a sure touchdown in the end zone on a play reminiscent of a similar gaffe by the Dallas Cowboys’ Jackie Smith in the 1979 Super Bowl.
Instead of going up by two touchdowns, the Wolfpack’s lead only increased to 16-6, leaving the door ajar for the Deacons’ comeback.
Another problem was State’s inability to run the ball against a Wake defense that came into the game allowing 221 yards per game on the ground this season. The Wolfpack rushed for only 47 yards on 27 carries, an average of less than two yards per attempt.
While Ryan Finley threw for 374 yards and a touchdown — with star receivers Kelvin Harmon and Jakobi Meyers combining for 25 catches — he never seemed able to complete the big throws when he and his team needed them.
State was just 6 for 16 on third-down conversions and 0 for 2 on fourth downs, including one on the Wake 20 with 1:39 remaining.
Doeren could have tried a field goal in that situation, but it wouldn’t have mattered the way Newman drove the Deacons (5-5, 2-4) down the field for the winning touchdown.
Newman, making his first career start in place of injured freshman Sam Hartman, got off to a tepid start Thursday. He threw for just 70 yards in the first half.
But as the Wolfpack began putting more emphasis on stopping the run, Newman began to heat up and gain confidence. He was 16 of 22 for 227 yards and three touchdowns after halftime.
“After they scored their first touchdown in the second half, it gave them a little more energy,” State safety Dexter Wright said. “As a defense, it was our job to put that out, shut out the confidence they had building. They made plays and continued to ride the wave by doing what they had to do to win.”
The decisive blow came at the end of an eight-play, 80-yard drive capped by a play in which Freudenthal caught a pass across the middle, got a block that took two Wolfpack defenders out, and stunned what had been a festive Thursday night crowd by running the rest of the way untouched into the end zone.
“We have no excuses, no excuses at all,” defensive tackle Larrell Murchison said of State’s most damaging loss in recent memory, but yet one that still felt hauntingly familiar. “We just have to play better, play together and keep it all together.