Pete Thomas had Bryan Underwood streaking down the sideline early in the game, open for what should have been a touchdown. But Thomas didn't make a great throw, forcing Underwood to make a tough play, and the ball fell incomplete. As it turned out, that was a sign of things to come.
The game turned irreparably for NC State in the third quarter, and Underwood was involved again. State's defense had come up with another critical stop around midfield, and the Pack got the ball back down 13-7. On the first play of the Pack's drive, Underwood took a handoff around the right side, got a great block along the edge to spring him, then hit the gas, scoring an apparent go-ahead touchdown. Instead, he was ruled out of bounds at the Clemson 47.
No replay that aired during the telecast showed conclusive evidence that Underwood ever stepped out of bounds. The portion of the run in question is in the gif above, so judge for yourself. The play was not reviewed by the officials, and Dave Doeren couldn't challenge it because it had been blown dead. Pete Thomas fumbled the ball away a couple snaps later, Clemson cashed in with a touchdown not long after that, and thus the game pretty much was wrapped up by the Tigers.
The bottom line is this: NC State had to catch the breaks in order to beat Clemson, and save a couple overthrows by Tajh Boyd on some deep routes, it got none. The Pack hurt itself with multiple false start penalties, altering the outlook of several drives. That's not a combination State could reasonably have been expected to overcome, not even in Raleigh, and not with the support of all the shimmying fat guys in the world.
By the fourth quarter, there was no energy left in the fans or, seemingly, the team. NC State went on a preposterous 23-play touchdown drive that ate up half of the final period, appearing to care not at all about the clock as it ticked away. State was down 26-7 at that point, but it's no excuse for just kinda chillin' and shooting the shit on the field for eight minutes. Thanks to that lethargic monstrosity, NC State actually finished the game with more fourth down conversions (four) than third down conversions (three).
As disappointing as the night was, though, and as confusing as many parts of it were, there was plenty to like and reason to believe this can be a pretty good team going forward. The defense played as well as anybody could have hoped, especially early on. The Tigers had the better of the field position all night long, and under those circumstances, it's impressive that the Wolfpack's defense kept State in the game. Kudos to all those guys. And let's hope Darryl Cato-Bishop's left ankle/foot--excuse me, lower extremity--injury is not serious. (We really can't afford to lose Juston Burris for any amount of time, either. At least it's a long week.)
Shadrach Thornton showed signs of life and made a couple of big plays, including an impressive 21-yard touchdown run that he finished through sheer determination. He then mysteriously disappeared from the offense, but that's neither here nor there.
Rashard Smith had his moments as well, and Underwood finally looked like the impact player we all know he can be--his impact ended up amounting to little because of the aforementioned blown plays, but it was good just to see him involved and showing off that speed of his. He might not have officially hit paydirt tonight--for reasons largely out of his control--but he will before long.
So I guess... I feel okay about this game? State ended up playing the Tigers pretty evenly on paper, and if that Underwood play is correctly ruled a touchdown, who the heck knows what would have happened from there. It's difficult not to dwell on a big swing like that, which might have defined the game in the other direction had State gotten the TD. Instead, it's a night that feels like a missed opportunity. That's not such a bad thing, though. I worried that we might look hopeless and overmatched. We were neither of those things.