RALEIGH — Tom O'Brien probably will coach N.C. State to many football wins in the future, but there may never be a more memorable one than Thursday night in Carter-Finley Stadium.
A 28-24 comeback victory over Florida State put the Wolfpack in position to win the ACC's Atlantic Division and advance to the Dec. 4 conference title game in Charlotte.
With games still to be played at Clemson, North Carolina and Maryland, it's no lock, of course.
The Pack's 3-1 league mark (6-2 overall) still may not be enough to prevent the Seminoles (6-2, 4-1) from winning the Atlantic.
Florida State has only one more road game - at Maryland on Nov. 20. So the schedule favors Jimbo Fisher's team. The Pack will be at home only once more - Nov. 13 against Wake Forest.
But whether State can get to Charlotte or not, the significance of Thursday's performance won't be diminished.
After trailing 21-7 at halftime, O'Brien gambled big on a fourth-down play at the FSU 1-yard-line with less than three minutes left in the game. Quarterback Russell Wilson's ensuing touchdown pass to tight end George Bryan only marked the beginning of the real suspense.
It wasn't until linebacker Nate Irving recovered a Christian Ponder fumble inside State's 10 with about 50 seconds remaining that the outcome was settled.
Earlier in the week, O'Brien called this game the most important in the four years since he left Boston College for N.C. State. With a 1-4 career against FSU before Thursday, the coach was putting as much pressure on himself as he was his players.
"Without question, this is the most significant game since I've been here," O'Brien said. "We're in a position to make a run at this thing, but we have to make it happen now."
In large part, State made it happen the hard way - by relying on a generally overlooked rushing attack.
Although Wilson did complete 18 passes for 178 yards, including the dramatic TD throw to Bryan, State's 189 yards on the ground were both pivotal and surprising.
"This team showed its toughness," O'Brien said. "We made something happen. What a great ending for these fans and these players."
Freshman running back Mustafa Greene was instrumental with 76 yards on 17 carries, but Wilson's ability to scramble and keep plays alive with his feet were equally important. He scored the Pack's first three touchdowns by running rather than throwing.
"His legs won the game, and they controlled the line of scrimmage," Fisher said. "There were quarterbacks making plays all night, but they made one more than we did.
"In the second half, they came out and just ran the ball straight down the field. They did a good job. But we've got one [ACC] loss, and they have one, so we have to play it all out and see what happens."
There's still a chance Clemson (4-3, 2-2) could find its way to Charlotte.
But at the end of the night Thursday, State liked its position - and rightfully so.
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