There were still questions about N.C. State after its win over Notre Dame in a hurricane last week.
Was it the weather? How good is Notre Dame really?
N.C. State lost at Clemson on Saturday, in overtime, but there’s no questioning N.C. State’s legitimacy after its performance.
“We’re a heckuva football team,” center Joe Scelfo said.
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At least one good enough to push the third-ranked Tigers to brink of elimination in the national title race. N.C. State was one 33-yard field goal away from that and only its second road win over a top 5 team. The other was in 1967.
N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said earlier this week that the trip to Clemson would be a measuring-stick game for his program.
If Clemson’s the standard — and it has won 30 of its past 32 games and lost in the national title game to Alabama last season by five points — then the Wolfpack is close.
“We just took the No. 3 team in the nation to overtime and really beat ourselves,” quarterback Ryan Finley said.
Kyle Bambard’s last miss, he had another attempt blocked and missed from 43 yards in the first quarter, were the obvious missed opportunities.
But the Wolfpack hurt itself with penalties, 13 for 120 yards, and a general inability to capitalize on turnovers.
Cornerback Mike Stevens scored on an interception return in the third quarter, but those were the only six points N.C. State could manufacture out of four Clemson turnovers.
“I think we beat ourselves in a lot of moments in the game,” said Finley, who finished with 231 yards and his first two interceptions of the season.
There will be a time for Doeren, who fell to 0-7 vs. top 25 opponents, to cull the meaning of Saturday’s effort out of the emotional rubble, but that time wasn’t on the steps of the visiting locker room moments after the game.
“I’m obviously emotional right now, so I’m not going to give you guys a lot,” Doeren said.
But there was the obvious comparison point, a 41-0 loss on the same field in 2014, that Doeren could stomach to make.
“Two years ago, it was 41-0 and today we played them into overtime and had a chance to beat them,” Doeren said.
Statistically, there is evidence of the Wolfpack closing the gap on Clemson, too. The Tigers scored 56 points and had 623 yards of offense last year in Raleigh. Clemson finished with 470 yards in regulation and 17 points.
N.C. State’s defense gave up 10 plays longer than 20 yards and five longer than 30 yards in last year’s loss. On Saturday, Clemson had two plays longer than 20 yards and none in the 30-plus range.
“We were definitely able to stop the explosive plays,” Stevens said.
After running back Matt Dayes scored the tying touchdown early in the fourth quarter and put the Wolfpack in position to win the game after a late fourth-quarter drive, there was no doubt in fullback Jaylen Samuels’ mind how much progress N.C. State has made.
“They weren’t better than us, point blank,” Samuels said. “We had the game in our hands. We just have to learn how to finish the game and win big games like this.”
That’s the next step for the Wolfpack, but you have to walk before you can run. N.C. State is almost ready to sprint.
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio