Between the beginning of the 2016 football season and the end of the 2018 campaign, NC State played in 10 football games where it was given the opportunity to execute a game-tying or game-winning drive in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter. Eight times it crossed the opponent’s 30 yard line. Seven total points were scored, which contributed to its only victory, a 34-28 win over UNC. State was 1-9 in those games.
For all the successes of those teams, including back-to-back 9-win seasons and an 11-5 ACC record in 17 and 18, it could almost never win the close ones. For all the plays made by the plethora of All-ACC selections, not many were made when the game was on the line. This, above all else, was NC State’s undoing.
Now nobody is going to tell you that this year’s product is comparable to those teams, the middle of which had legitimate ACC title hopes. But this year’s group, in just three games, has already done something no other Dave Doeren coached Wolfpack team has done, literally ever. It has won two games where it trailed in the fourth quarter, something it has done just four times in the last seven years. This team may not be better than the team’s of the past, but it certainly appears to have bucked the trend they started.
The rejuvenation felt after State’s season-opening win over Wake Forest was largely brought on by how the Pack finished. State gave up a ton of yards to the Demon Deacons and made plenty of errors along the way, but it executed in the clutch. The last two Wake Forest drives made up the Pack’s best defensive sequence of the evening, which followed a go-ahead touchdown drive that was completely shenanigan-free. It felt different because it was different.
A similar plot played out last Saturday in Pittsburgh. The Pack gave up a ton of yards to the Panthers. It had inconsistent offensive play and certainly had its share of mistakes. It was a long way from perfect, but State made all the biggest plays. The goal-line stand, the fourth-and-nine conversion, and the critical third-down with Pitt driving to take a 10-point lead were all plays made by the team in red.
In both wins, the Pack came up big when it mattered. It played its best football when it absolutely had to have its best football. It didn’t curl up in a ball and soil itself when faced with the prospect of a game-altering sequence. State has looked comfortable and prepared for those moments and it has delivered at each opportunity.
What it ultimately means for this team is not yet known, other than a two in the win column that could easily be a zero, but encouraging probably isn’t a strong enough word for it. The State teams of the past produced so much heartbreak and left so many scars. They played scared with the game on the line, and it showed. At the very least, this team is unafraid.