CHARLOTTE – Bryson Speas hopped into an Uber Wednesday night with fellow offensive lineman Grant Gibson, Derrick Eason and Tim McKay for a quiet sushi dinner amidst the mayhem of bowl game preparation.
They had wanted to walk, but with Gibson, the sixth-year center on crutches, ridesharing was the best option. The four North Carolina State football players dined on California rolls and reflected on a 2022 season that had led to the Duke’s Mayo Bowl – an ultimate consolation prize considering the preseason hype surrounding the Wolfpack.
NC State (8-4) won eight games will four different quarterbacks and ended the regular season with a double-overtime win over UNC but failed to achieve its greatest goals: 10 wins for the second time ever, make the ACC title game or earn a place in a New Year’s Six bowl game.
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In that moment, none of that mattered for Speas. This dinner was a tribute to friendship and brotherhood, a space where they could linger before life’s journey took them in separate directions.
“Those will always be my guys,” Speas said. “But yeah, after this, everything changes. It’s crazy how fast everything goes.”
It was that sense of closure that hovered over the Charlotte convention floor Thursday as the Wolfpack (8-4) gear up for one final game against former ACC foe Maryland (7-5) on Friday (noon, ESPN) at Bank of America Stadium. Four of the five Wolfpack players available to the media – linebacker Isaiah Moore, defensive tackle Cory Durden, Speas and Gibson – are out of eligibility with LB Drake Thomas opting to declare for the NFL draft earlier this month.
Earlier this season, 30 players walked during senior day with half out of eligibility and many still waiting to decide their future.
“I’ve known these guys a long time, like seven years with recruiting and the time they’ve been on campus,” Doeren said. “It’s so much deeper than not seeing them or coaching them, you know? These are friendships you’ll have for life, and I’m indebted to the guys.”
NC State is one Mayo bath away from its fourth nine-win season in the past six years, and after last year’s Holiday Bowl cancellation the day of the game, completing the season in its entirety has greater importance than ever.
“Finishing matters to our guys,” Doeren said. “It was an incomplete feeling last year.”
Friday’s game will be a bittersweet end for Gibson, a Charlotte native who began his college career six years ago at Bank of America Stadium when the Wolfpack faced South Carolina to open the 2017 season. His season was ended prematurely with a lower-body injury in the first half against Boston College on Nov. 12.
“It’s been tough at time to be here just because I wanted the chance to come home and play here to end my college career,” Gibson said. “But I’m just glad I had the chance to come to NC State. It’s wild to think that this will be like our last bus ride to the stadium and the last time doing a lot of the stuff with the guys. I’m just trying to enjoy the moment.”
That moment will be enjoyed even more with a win. Maryland will be the 10th bowl-eligible team the Wolfpack played this season. Only Kansas State is guaranteed to play more among Power 5 teams. While considerable attention has been paid to NC State’s quarterbacks and who will be available against the Terrapins, it will be the Wolfpack defense that will likely lead them to victory.
NC State is one of just three teams (Georgia and Michigan) to not allow more than 30 points in a game this season, giving up just more than 19 points a game. Maryland enters the game with three losses in the last four games but has a talented quarterback in Taulia Tagovailoa, the younger brother of Miami Dolphins QB Tua Tagovailoa.
“He’s a big-time competitor,” said Thomas, who has 90 tackles and 6.5 sacks this season. “He fights. He gets out of a lot of sticky situations with his feet. But we’re proud of our defense at what we’ve accomplished this year. I feel like we can look back at it and say that we left no stones unturned.”
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