N.C. State’s biggest win this season is over Louisville, on a beautiful moonlight night at Carter-Finley Stadium. The Wolfpack’s second biggest win is over its own worst instincts, at a time of soul-searching in dark places.
In the wake of the season-opening loss to South Carolina, a game the Wolfpack dominated statistically only to sabotage itself at key moments, N.C. State rallied and regrouped. Against a lower caliber of opposition, to be sure, but the Wolfpack avoided the cardinal sin of letting one loss beat it twice.
By the time it was called upon to be at its best again, it went down to Tallahassee and took care of business against a weakened Florida State team, then staked its claim in the Atlantic Division with the Louisville win.
And now, after last week’s loss at Notre Dame – another game where the Wolfpack found ways to hurt itself, although there’s no questioning the Fighting Irish’s quality – N.C. State must do it again.
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It has to put aside whatever slipped away in South Bend and get back to its best, because there will be no margin for error against Clemson, even at home.
“Losing some key players during the game didn’t help, but we still had some opportune moments and some critical errors that cost us at key moments,” N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said. “All big games come down to one or two or three plays, so it’s going to be a game where those plays have got to go our way.”
It’s still hard to figure out what lens to see this season through. Whatever happens in the Clemson game will offer some clarity.
On the one hand, N.C. State has lost to a team that’s 4-2 in the SEC East on a neutral field and to a team in the top-four of the initial College Football Playoff rankings on the road, with six wins between. That’s a solid resume, taking care of business against lesser ACC teams, avoiding slip-ups against Syracuse or Pittsburgh. Despite the Notre Dame loss, the Wolfpack remains in control of its own destiny in the Atlantic Division.
On the other, N.C. State’s best wins are over 2-5 Florida State and 5-4 Louisville, was beaten soundly by the Irish and lost to a South Carolina team that managed to lose to Kentucky and Texas A&M and hasn’t beaten anyone else with a winning record. It’s fair to say that Notre Dame was the first really good team the Wolfpack played, and the results were not good.
So this is it, then: The tipping point of N.C. State’s season. By Saturday night, the Wolfpack will know where it stands. Everyone will.
If N.C. State is the team it thinks it is, it shouldn’t have any trouble following a win over Clemson with wins over Boston College, Wake Forest and North Carolina. If N.C. State is the team it hopes it isn’t, those next three games will suddenly look a lot tougher.
But to be at its best against Clemson, to have the best chance to prove it’s an ACC contender, N.C. State will have to leave a difficult loss behind. The Wolfpack has been able to do that once this season. Its immediate future depends on doing it again.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock
Clemson at NC State
When: 3:30 p.m., Saturday
Where: Carter-Finley Stadium, Raleigh