The No. 19 Texas A&M football team hasn’t taken the field since the game of the year against then-No. 7 LSU at Kyle Field with a 74-72 victory on Nov. 24. Now, the Aggies will participate in their 10th straight bowl game as they travel to Jacksonville, Florida to take on the North Carolina State Wolfpack in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl. This is the first time A&M has been in a Florida bowl game since participating in the Gator Bowl in 1957, while NC State played in the Gator Bowl back in 2003 when they defeated Norte Dame 28-6.
This season, NC State went 9-3 (5-3 ACC) in the regular season, giving the Wolfpack their fourth nine-win season since 1995. Head coach Dave Doeren has taken the Wolfpack to five-straight bowl games, winning three of the last four. State started the year 5-0 and 2-0 in the Atlantic Coast Conference before dropping two straight to No. 2 Clemson and No. 20 Syracuse. The Wolfpack then went 4-1 to close out the year with road wins over Louisville and North Carolina.
“It’s a great opportunity to play a great football team,” Doeren said. “It’s an opportunity for us to achieve 10 wins and do another thing for our program that hasn’t been done in a long time. We’ve got a very special group of young men and it’s going to be fun to be with them one more time.”
Both teams are incredibly similar in their run defenses, but differ in their pass defenses. A&M is second in rushing yards allowed and 111th in passing yards allowed, while NC State is 13th in rushing yards and 120th in passing yards allowed. A&M quarterback Kellen Mond and State quarterback Ryan Finley will be the focal points for both offenses due to the two team’s lackluster secondaries. Mond will have his full stable of weapons, while Finley will be without his top option in junior receiver Kelvin Harmon, who is skipping the game to prepare for the 2019 NFL Draft. Finley has thrown for 3,789 yards and added 24 touchdowns with a total of nine interceptions this year.
Having coached at Florida State for eight seasons, A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher is very familiar with NC State. Fisher went 5-3 against the Wolfpack while at FSU and knows Doeren’s program very well.
“Finley understands where to go, where to process information, and gets the ball out quickly,” Fisher said. “His feel for the game and his accuracy is great. I’ve played against him the last few years and he’s a tremendous football player. I have great respect for him and I think he’s going to be a great pro.”
One weapons Mond will have at his disposal is junior running back Trayveon Williams. Williams led the SEC in rushing with 1,524 yards and totaled 15 touchdowns. Junior tight end Jace Sternberger is also a strong contender for the Aggies. Sternberger led the team in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. Both could enter the NFL Draft early after the Gator Bowl as Williams was a second-team All-American and Sternberger was the first-team All-American tight end.
Williams has a chance to break the A&M all-time record for rushing yards in a season if he runs for 169 yards against NC State, something he is undoubtedly trying to accomplish in what could be his last game as an Aggie.
“I couldn’t lie and say it’s not important,” Williams said. “As a student-athlete and as a player, you want to set your mark on a program and most importantly we want to get this win. The last four years we have been unsuccessful in bowl games, so we definitely want to get that done for our seniors most importantly.”
The Gator Bowl will be played at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville. Kickoff is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. and the game will be televised on ESPN.