Smiles wide, N.C. State’s players filled the gap between the field and grandstands, the fence unable to contain their jubilation or separate them from the equally joyous Wolfpack fans, a sprig of the Kenan Stadium hedge tucked in Bradley Chubb’s mouth.
At the end of a difficult, frustrating season when the Wolfpack had mostly moral victories to celebrate, N.C. State had an actual victory to enjoy, and over its archrival no less. Instead of disbanding, the Wolfpack will be together for another month. After all the disappointment, after all the self-inflicted wounds, it had been a long wait for something worth celebrating, and this was definitely worth celebrating.
“They deserve it, all the fans deserve it, everyone deserves it,” N.C. State receiver Stephen Louis said. “It’s been a tough season, but everyone deserves this.”
For the second straight time, the Wolfpack beat North Carolina on its own turf, hanging on for a 28-21 win Friday. For the third straight season, the Wolfpack will go to a bowl game and will get an extra few weeks of practice, always more valuable than the actual experience of playing in a mid-tier bowl game.
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So the impact and positive momentum of this victory will linger for a long time for N.C. State, and that has nothing to do with coach Dave Doeren or his future. If athletic director Debbie Yow and the N.C. State administration aren’t happy with the direction of the program, Friday’s win shouldn’t matter. If they feel Doeren deserves another year, a loss shouldn’t have made a difference, either.
Still, there’s no question Doeren was feeling the pressure. Unlike two years ago, when he luxuriated in the victory with his Blue Collar Manifesto and Scenes from a Dry Cleaner, he was subdued afterward Friday, focused on how his team endured a relentless string of brutal losses and how far the program has come in his four seasons.
“It’s about these players and these coaches hanging together,” Doeren said, “amidst a lot of heartbreaking days and negativity and doubt. … They just kept fighting with each other and for each other and they know where our program is headed. That’s what this is about.”
After too many no-shows against opponents N.C. State should have beaten, and a few strong efforts that weren’t quite enough to overcome better teams, N.C. State finally put it all together, following the same ball-control playbook Duke used to beat the Tar Heels two weeks ago while relying on a defense that has improved dramatically over the course of the season.
That Duke loss and this loss were all too similar for North Carolina, characterized by an inability to exert any influence on the line of scrimmage, an offense lacking any explosiveness and a curiously passive attitude among both coaches and players – with the unfortunate exception of Jalen Dalton, who was ejected after throwing a punch when benches cleared in the second quarter.
That included UNC coach Larry Fedora, who punted three times inside N.C. State territory in the first half. He reverted to form with an onside kick to start the second half, only to have North Carolina’s recovery wiped out by a penalty, then called two failed gadget plays in the red zone in the third quarter, both of which backfired.
“We do it every week, and when it works, everybody loves it,” Fedora said. “And when they don’t, they can criticize it.”
Fedora is now 21-9 against the rest of the ACC and 5-5 against Duke and N.C. State. This season, the Tar Heels represented the biggest victory of the season for both rivals, which also shared wins over 4-7 Notre Dame.
Doeren had his own moment of curious passivity, mismanaging his timeouts at the end of the first half and playing for a field goal instead of a touchdown – a strategy further undermined when Connor Haskins missed the chip shot.
It was the kind of thing that all too often has come back to haunt the Wolfpack. Friday, finally, N.C. State made sure it didn’t matter. Finally, the Wolfpack had something worth celebrating.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock