RALEIGH — It was a beautiful day for a football game at Carter-Finley Stadium, as long as you weren't an N.C. State fan. There weren't many of those left by the end anyway.
For most of two quarters Saturday, the Wolfpack played very much like the team those fans expected N.C. State to be this season. The rest of the game, the Wolfpack played like the team N.C. State too often has been this season.
Either way, N.C. State is 2-3 after a 45-35 loss to Georgia Tech, the final score given a more respectable shine by a pair of late N.C. State touchdowns against the second team. Georgia Tech was up 21-0 early in the second quarter and, after N.C. State pulled within seven in the third quarter, ripped off another 21 points in less than 2 1/2 minutes.
By the time N.C. State caught up to the pace, the Wolfpack was already down three touchdowns. A nice scoring drive late in the second quarter ended with a touchdown pass to Jay Smith, James Washington ran for a 46-yard touchdown on N.C. State's first play of the third quarter and the Wolfpack defense stopped Georgia Tech on fourth-and-short at the N.C. State 3-yard line on the next possession.
It was a very nice sequence that looked like it might be a turning point for the Wolfpack, for the day, if not the season. The third quarter ended with N.C. State very much in the game, down 21-14.
"We had momentum going into the second half. We got a big defensive stop and we scored on our first play," N.C. State quarterback Mike Glennon said. "Things looked like they were going to turn around right there."
They did, but not the way Glennon expected. A mere five minutes into the fourth quarter, Georgia Tech had turned a seven-point lead into a 28-point lead. One of those three touchdowns came when Glennon threw an interception immediately after a Georgia Tech touchdown.
As Isaiah Johnson ran the pick back, Glennon stood on the wrong side of the goal line, ready to make a nothing-saving tackle. Still, the defense had him beat, jumping offsides three times on fourth-and-short.
Georgia Tech may not be the greatest barometer, because there's so little margin for error against the flexbone option, but State just hasn't been competitive against FBS competition yet. Only the second-half rally against Wake Forest and today's midgame stretch stand out against the trend.
A month ago, eight wins seemed within reach, nine only slightly optimistic, and 10 not out of the question. Now, N.C. State needs wins in five of its final seven games to become bowl eligible, and even 6-6 would be reasonably disappointing for a team that expected at least be a factor in the Atlantic Division race.
Next week's visit from 2-3 Central Michigan may offer some respite - these aren't the Chippewas of Brian Kelly and Butch Jones, although they certainly cannot be taken for granted - but road games at Virginia and Florida State are next, both now must-wins for N.C. State. Really, they all are at this point.
"I want to win out," defensive lineman J.R. Sweezy said. "We can do it. We made some bounds and leaps today. We need to grow off it and get where we need to be. ... We played Wolfpack football for 2 1/2 quarters. That's the first time we've done that all year."
There's no choice but to play on, with the Wolfpack trying to replicate half of Saturday's game going forward - the more promising half, presumably.