NC State finally stepped onto the big stage Saturday, but instead of grabbing hold of the spotlight, it never came close to getting itself together.
Clemson is a very good football team. It’s a program that has succeeded mightily in the development of talent and depth and positioned itself at the pinnacle of college football. At its best, it would beat any level of NC State product, obviously. That doesn’t mean that the Wolfpack, which have been steadily upgrading talent and depth in its own right, can’t win a matchup like last Saturday’s. It just means that State has to play to its highest level to give itself a chance.
Instead of the highest level, we were witnesses to an absolute stinker. Center Garrett Bradbury bothered himself with no mitigation when he said “we got our ass kicked,” and he ain’t wrong. State looked worse than unprepared, they looked terrified of the moment.
Clemson is clearly better, and unlike the last two years, they didn’t leave the door open for State with their own mistakes and giveaways. It’s not the losing that’s upsetting. If you’re mad about a road loss to a top five team, you should readjust your expectations. It’s the lack of any semblance of competence that was so incredibly astounding. This is a good football team, and when they come out and look like they’ve never played the game before, it makes you wonder what caused the meltdown. State might not be better than Clemson, but it’s better than a 41-7 loss.
Clemson played a good game though. State played like crap. That’s a recipe for a blowout. From the dropped potential touchdown pass to the fumbled snap on State’s first sustained drive of the entire game (only down 14-0 at the time), to multiple coaching blunders, the Pack helped themselves zero in the first half. These mistakes have been a theme for years of Dave Doeren football, and while you can survive it against Boston College and Virginia, Clemson will make you pay. That’s what great teams do.
And that’s what Clemson did as NC State shot itself in the foot, hand, and face with a diverse range of errors. These errors have come to define NC State over the last three years, and while maintaining support for a coaching staff that’s the best we’ve seen in decades, it’s fair to wonder if they’ll ever eliminate these self-inflicted backbreakers. The toughest walls for these NC State teams to scale have always been the ones it builds for itself.
It wasn’t just the routine mistakes that ignited Saturday’s forest fire though. State was purely not ready to play. The Pack attacked Clemson right out of the gate both of the last two years. It was State that set the tone, despite being the inferior team each time. Granted, Clemson played a horrendous game in 2016 and wasn’t really that good overall in 17. This team was better, but that only made a good start for State that much more important. They really needed that on Saturday to have a chance, but the Pack never executed. They never settled in. It was an unmitigated disaster from the very first play. Yes, a lot of that is credit to Clemson and their preparation, but it’s hard to not feel like NC State was woefully unprepared to take that field. That part was abnormal.
That’s what the frustration is about though. A clean and well-played game by the Pack might still very well end in a double-digit loss, but it’s much easier to stomach losing to a better team than just outright laying an egg from the opening kickoff in the biggest game in years.
So after all that, it might be time to just burn the tape of this one. Sure, there are lessons to take from it, but the most important one is probably just to move on. The Pack still has so much to play for, including a record number of wins and a possible NY6 Bowl Game, the latter of which has never happened.
Even at 11-1, this one will still sting a little though. This was the fairy tale setup. The star quarterback had a chance to cement his legacy by beating his last untoppled nemesis after two years of heartbreak. That wasn’t any kind of fairy tale ending though. In reality, State laid an egg and got its teeth kicked in. Oh well. On to the next.