RALEIGH — Lots of N.C. State fans arrived at Carter-Finley Stadium on Saturday expecting to see their football coach end the afternoon in job jeopardy.
What they saw instead was probably the most impressive performance in Tom O'Brien's 15 years as a head coach.
An astonishingly one-sided 37-13 win against nationally seventh-ranked Clemson (9-2, 6-2 ACC) put the coach's fifth Wolfpack team back in bowl contention and dealt a blow to the ACC's already slim hope of getting into the BCS title conversation.
But now what, pray tell?
Does the erratic Wolfpack (6-5, 3-4 ) pull another disappearing act against Maryland (2-9, 1-6) or stay the course and wrap up a postseason spot - perhaps in Charlotte's Belk Bowl on Dec. 27. Logically, you have to think O'Brien and his team finally have found a cushion. But in this illogical, seesaw season, don't put money on anything associated with the Wolfpack.
This is a team that ended October with a humiliating loss at Florida State, began November with a startling 13-0 upset over North Carolina only to lose the following week at Boston College in an anemic offensive effort.
"College football is crazy these days," O'Brien said.
On Thursday night, massive underdog Alabama-Birmingham upset No. 22 Southern Miss. A night later, No. 2 Oklahoma State was taken out at Iowa State and earlier Saturday, Samford played 2010 BCS champ Auburn even for three quarters.
Clemson was without freshman star receiver Sammy Watkins, who sat out the game with a shoulder injury. But nowhere on the national board was there a more stunning final score than the Wolfpack win.
As electrifying as Watkins can be, he's just one player, and first-year Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris' unit had been unstoppable through the first 10 games.
The Tigers did lead 3-0 briefly. Otherwise, they were thoroughly dominated. Three early turnovers allowed the Wolfpack to get the momentum and deliver one of the biggest upsets in school history.
Some of what happened can be attributed to a fear factor. O'Brien was so outraged by the loss at Boston College that quarterback Mike Glennon said the team was almost afraid to lose.
"He told us we would not forgive us unless we got to a bowl game and won it," Glennon said. "There was no doubt he meant it."
Having played two lower level teams earlier - Liberty and South Alabama - N.C. State needs seven wins, rather than the normal six, to be bowl eligible. That means a win against Maryland is just as much of a must-win situation.
"This one means nothing unless we come back and beat Maryland," O'Brien said.
Glennon and defensive standout Terrell Manning said they sensed the turnaround beginning to build even before the team returned from Boston.
"I thought we'd play a great game," Manning said. "I felt it all week because all of us were upset about what happened at BC."
O'Brien, 31-30 since leaving Boston College for the Wolfpack, needed something special. His fifth season has been marked by a rash of injuries, uneven play and a dip in fan energy. A loss could have put him in hot water with athletic director Debbie Yow and three-game losing streak to end the season might have been too much to overcome.
"I thought we would respond," said senior tight end George Bryan. "No one on the team has ever given up on the season."
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney was impressed.
"I give N.C. State and coach O'Brien the credit. They earned it and wanted it more than we did," Swinney said.
The Wolfpack aggressively took what it wanted Saturday, but the shelf life of the team's want factor is still unknown.