The full moon never materialized. It couldn’t find a way to poke through the gloom that hung over Carter-Finley Stadium on Saturday. It was up there, somewhere, a promise unfulfilled.
So also will the record reflect this N.C. State football season: A good team that had greatness within its grasp but turned out to be merely good, a promise unfulfilled. And there’s nothing wrong with that, with being good enough to push Clemson to the final play. Greatness, though, has now officially eluded this group. The Atlantic Division is a now a bridge too far after Saturday’s 38-31 loss, although the Wolfpack can still win 10 games for the second time in school history.
Even without the moon, the Wolfpack still howled. Doeren opened his press conference demanding an investigation into what he said was an illegal laptop on the Clemson sideline, which somehow managed to break new ground among decades of N.C. State conspiracy theories. (A Clemson official said it belonged to the school’s social media team and was removed during the second half after a call from the ACC.)
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Penalties went 6-3 against the Wolfpack, which left Doeren calling for consistency after Notre Dame’s defensive backs were allowed to play aggressively last week and N.C. State’s were not this week. Jaylen Samuels even declared afterward the Wolfpack knew the officials would be against them, which doesn’t suggest a championship focus in the locker room. There could be no arguing, however, the illegal shift call on fourth down on N.C. State’s final drive that turned a first-and-goal into a fourth-and 15; Ryan Finley’s late audible left the Wolfpack repositioning at the snap.
And the fans, some of whom pelted the officials with objects as they left the field, also howled over Doeren’s decision to punt on fourth-and-1 at midfield, down three points late in the third quarter after a Clemson touchdown. Doeren later explained that he felt it important to flip the field after the Wolfpack had been pinned in its own territory on four straight possessions, but got burned by an 89-yard Tavien Feaster touchdown run on the next play.
The Wolfpack can indulge in all the conspiracy theories it likes, but the reality is N.C. State had every chance to win that game but couldn’t make the plays it needed in the end. The officials had nothing to do with that, although having Nyheim Hines come into the game banged up and Samuels exit it that way didn’t help.
“I think we’re all in consensus right now that we didn’t make enough plays tonight,” defensive lineman Kentavius Street said. “Even though we didn’t have a few calls come our way, we didn’t make enough pays, and the better team won tonight. And that’s how we feel.”
There were so many chances, right down to the final drive. Samuels was open in the end zone, but Clemson safety K’Von Wallace got over just in time to knock the ball away before the illegal shift wiped out N.C. State’s best chance to win.
Opportunities like this don’t exactly come along with every full moon. N.C. State hadn’t been this close to playing for an ACC title since Maryland’s Torrey Smith tore through the Wolfpack in College Park on a frigid night in 2010. (That final score? 38-31.) This was just as close, by the finest of margins, a play here or there.
Finley threw a crucial second-half interception for the second straight week and overthrew Kelvin Harmon on a likely touchdown in the third quarter. The defense gave up a length-of-field run, also for the second straight week. The Wolfpack missed five tackles (roughly) on a Ray-Ray McCloud punt return for a touchdown in the first quarter.
And that, for this team, is the difference between good and great. Unable to overcome its own mistakes against South Carolina, unable to keep up with Notre Dame in South Bend, unable to make the play it needed against Clemson when it needed it.
N.C. State had a chance to be a great team, but it’s not. It’s a good one, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The Wolfpack still has plenty to play for, just not as much as it did Saturday.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock