It was touched on before just how much the Mississippi State game felt like a redo, a recreation of the exact circumstances that surrounded the South Carolina game in Charlotte in 2017. It was stunning in a way that was exactly 0% stunning that the game would go on to start with the exact same 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. It was a little on-the-nose, even for these football gods.
So it seems too heavy-handed to be believable that, three weeks later, NC State would get almost an exact redo of the single most painful individual football moment maybe in the history of the program. And after delivering the same result and starting overtime the exact same way, State decided it was completely done with the nonsense.
I simply cannot ignore the hilarious poetry of this game and the way State pushed through to achieve the opposite result. After Dunn’s kick hooked, every Pack fan’s brain was invaded with some variation of the same thought. “Same thing, different day.” But it wasn’t the same thing in the sense of just another heart-wrenching loss. It was the same thing exactly, to a tee. How is that possible?
It’s not often you get a chance to beat a top 10 team with an easy field goal. After blowing something like that, it’s pretty remarkable to get an opportunity to execute the exact same drive in the exact same situation just a handful of years later. To blow that twice is some Atlanta Falcons level heartbreak, but you never have to think about either again. State overcame it to win anyway.
This doesn’t represent some massive switch-flip within the football program. NC State had Clemson on the ropes three separate times in the last eight years and let them slip all three times. Saturday’s win didn’t happen because the Pack uncovered some secret to finally cross that threshold. It just made a couple more plays down the stretch, the same thing it always needed to do to get over that hump.
But it certainly feels like something changed, and the nature of the game’s final regulation drive adds plenty of fuel to that fire. I’m not suggesting that simply “being tough” was the difference. It’s nothing so defined. But there is definitely a stark contrast between how setbacks affected the Pack against Mississippi State and against Clemson. It takes a certain degree of mental toughness to watch that kick sail wide and go back out there and win that game. When the same situation arose in Memorial Stadium in 2016, that ball game was finished by the overtime coin flip. Not on Saturday. “Not again” said Isaiah Moore, one of the few players on the team who was on that field five years ago.
Every single football coach in America has at some point uttered the phrase “next play.” That’s an attitude that every great football team has to actually embody though, not just say. It also can’t be taught, it can only be absorbed via osmosis from the program’s leaders. State had it on Saturday. As Doeren said, nobody flinched when it went to overtime. I feel almost obligated to comment on this after the way I ripped the team and their body language following Mississippi State, and that’s a good thing. I wanted nothing more than that to end up a massive overreaction. It’s pretty cool that, after no-showing in a weirdly poetic redemption game two weeks earlier, State would get another perfect opportunity to push back on its reputation. And this time it delivered the goods. “NC State just can’t have nice things” said everyone after the Mississippi State game. Two weeks later it got one very nice thing. It’s sort of a redemption of a redemption. A redemception, if you will. Anyway.
Any win over the Tigers would always feel like a monkey off the back, but doing it in this way had to feel like more than that. It had to feel like the demons of 2016 exorcised in their entirety. For many, the defining aspect of Dave Doeren’s first eight years in Raleigh was his inability to win “the big one.” That was never particularly fair, given the big one was almost always Clemson, a program that was in the top ten for 97 straight weeks and had qualified for every single College Football Playoff. But that’s the reality of coaching in the ACC Atlantic right now. Clemson is where the line is drawn.
I can’t imagine how awesome it must feel for Dave to finally step across that line and to do so in a way that should make you never again think about 2016. Doeren is a good coach and a fantastic representative of his university. He deserved one of these so bad, and that’s what this win is about. It’s about the program flipping the script on some old demons and getting that elusive win in the most poetic way possible. The implications of it on the season and the ACC Atlantic race can wait. There will be time for that, but nobody cares right now. NC State beat Clemson. Dave Doeren beat Clemson. NC State punched the football gods in the face and said “not today you jerks.” Everything else can wait.