RALEIGH — Saturday's 38-24 win over Central Michigan doesn't mean N.C. State's so-so football season to date suddenly has taken flight.
Definitive information on that front probably won't be known until Nov. 5, when Wolfpack coach Tom O'Brien and his players attempt to push their win streak against UNC to five.
But while the big picture hasn't come into focus just yet, certain aspects of the Wolfpack's season did change some Saturday - and not just by the introduction of black uniforms.
For one thing, a 34-27 loss at Wake Forest on Sept. 10 no longer looks so unsightly.
After the Deacons stopped Florida State by a similar score at Groves Stadium Saturday, the early-season Wolfpack performance at Winston-Salem indirectly gained a degree of respect.
The same can't be said for a 44-14 loss at Cincinnati on Sept. 22 and a 45-35 loss to Georgia Tech on Oct. 1 in Carter-Finley Stadium.
But at 3-3 overall (0-2 ACC), the Pack will go into its much-needed open week with a defensive unit that's healing fast enough to give the team a fighting chance at Virginia on Oct. 22.
Almost immediately against the Mid-American Conference Chippewas (2-4), the Wolfpack got linebacker Terrell Manning back in the lineup after sitting out the past two games with a knee injury.
Manning made a difference simply by being on the field, O'Brien quickly pointed out.
The junior from Laurinburg, Scotland, had an interception and figured in seven tackles. He returned well ahead of expectations.
"They [medical staff] said three to five weeks, but I said right off I was coming back after two," Manning said.
Such enthusiasm and leadership will be important to a defense that was still sloppy early against Central Michigan and gave up a 77-yard touchdown run late.
If Manning and unit captain J.R. Sweezy can keep their health, the Wolfpack could still be a post-season participant simply because the offense is beginning to show punch.
Quarterback Mike Glennon threw for four touchdowns, no interceptions and was sacked only once by a decent Central Michigan defensive front.
Running backs James Washington and Tony Creecy don't have much explosion but are good enough to keep linebackers honest.
After much preseason uncertainty at wide receiver, the group has a chance to wind up among the ACC's best by late season.
One cupcake doesn't make for a party, of course. The final six games could overwhelm the Wolfpack unless the defense tightens up.
Manning understands that situation.
"The defense has got to use this extra time to get better in all areas," he said. "There's not any one area where I would say we've turned the corner. We've got to get better at everything - timing, execution, making stops on big plays."
But the Pack has survived a barrage of injuries and inexperience to reach the break in a position to move up.
A loss to Central Michigan likely would have completely broken the Wolfpack's spirit. In that regard, it was a must-win game. Several more lie just ahead.