WINSTON-SALEM — Saturday's fourth quarter may not break N.C. State's season or make Wake Forest's season. It may just feel that way to fans of both teams who saw - or nearly saw - some of their worst fears realized on the field.
For N.C. State, a disjointed passing game and porous defense combined to gift-wrap Wake Forest a 21-point lead early in the second quarter. Everything the Wolfpack got away with in a lackluster opening win over Liberty did significant damage in Saturday's 34-27 loss.
As for the Demon Deacons, visions of last week's fourth-quarter collapse at Syracuse were all too real as the clock ticked down Saturday. An 0-2 start, after leading both games by two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, is the stuff of locker-room implosions - especially for a team that had won only four of its previous 19 games. Wake needed this one, and needed it badly.
"We weren't going to let one game ruin our season," Wake quarterback Tanner Price said.
They didn't, breaking up a fourth-down pass with 95 seconds to play and sending N.C. State home from Winston-Salem without a win for the fifth straight time. More than that, the Demon Deacons avoided what would have been a soul-sapping loss.
"You could sense the importance that they felt down the stretch of not letting it slip away," Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe said. "It wasn't pretty, and we'll probably be mad at the defense when we get them in practice on Monday, but right now we're going to enjoy it."
If Grobe thinks his defense is going to hear about it, his bark may be a lullaby compared to what Tom O'Brien has planned for his defense this week.
It didn't help that three defensive linemen are injured, leaving the Wolfpack with only a pale facsimile of a pass rush. But even with that qualification, the linebackers and secondary have to play better than this.
"We haven't played defense like this in God knows how long," O'Brien said.
It wasn't that long: Two years ago, N.C. State couldn't stop anyone, with a defense ravaged by injuries left with what was essentially the scout team. The Wolfpack lost 30-24 at Wake that season, with Russell Wilson throwing an interception in the end zone to seal it for Wake.
It wasn't an interception but a drop that snuffed the N.C. State rally Saturday. George Bryan, the first-team preseason all-ACC tight end, dropped what would have been a first-down catch on what turned out to be N.C. State's final third down.
"I dropped one ball out there that I definitely should have caught," Bryan said. "That was in a big situation. ... It definitely showed today that there are some people - it could be myself - who just aren't working hard enough, and we have to fix it."
There were other drops - too many other drops - but that one hurt as much as any, especially considering whose hands failed the Wolfpack.
O'Brien criticized the concentration of his receivers, and quarterback Mike Glennon apologized for a few throws that were behind the target, but the drops collectively epitomized the lack of focus that left the Wolfpack playing from behind all afternoon.
"We've got a lot of work to do and I'm going to make sure we get it done, starting this week," O'Brien said. "We have a lot of games to play and lots of good players on this team. Some of these guys need to wake up. This isn't last year."
It's a new year and a new season. Two games into it, while N.C. State is feeling only frustration, Wake Forest is feeling only relief.