The celebration was gaining steam behind the south end zone, right in front of the N.C. State student section, Bryan Underwood at the center of the swarm, having just scampered 83 yards along the right sideline to glory.
There were Wolfpack players hugging and jumping in the air, an extra point away from taking the lead on third-ranked Clemson midway through the third quarter, but one man stood at the back at midfield, waving his arms over his head. And his was the only body language that mattered.
Replays appeared to indicate Underwood stayed inbounds, twice tiptoeing within a fraction of an inch but never touchingthe sideline. But line judge Richard Misner saw Underwood step out, or at least he thought he did, his view obstructed by a pair of players battling for position as he trailed the play.
The ball came back. The points came off the board.
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Three plays later, Pete Thomas fumbled and Clemson quickly scored. Instead of being ahead 14-13, N.C. State was trailing 20-7 on its way to a 26-14 loss.
“It was right in front of me. He didn’t go out of bounds,” N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said. “Unfortunately, they blew it dead so they couldn’t review it. It was an unfortunate deal. The guy felt bad about it. You can’t do anything about it. It’s just the way it is.”
That call didn’t doom N.C. State, but it certainly paved the way. It was a 14-point swing, nullifying the first and only big play of the game from the N.C. State offense on a night when the Wolfpack did a remarkable job staunching the flow of the powerful Clemson machine.
Whether the call was right or wrong, there’s no recourse. Once the official blows his whistle and rules the player out of bounds, the play is dead. They can look at it in the replay booth, but all they can do is cringe.
It ends with the whistle. So, for that matter, did N.C. State’s hopes of victory.
There were earlier gut-wrenching momentum-killers for N.C. State – an interception return for a touchdown wiped out by a last-second Clemson timeout; a first-quarter Underwood sprint where he stepped out of bounds at midfield, unquestionably that time – but they were understandable.
Underwood’s would-be TD was more difficult to stomach.
“It hurts,” Underwood said. “But hey – things happen in games, so you’ve got to bounce back from them. Good or bad.”
Human error is part of the game, on the part of players, coaches and officials alike. (The media isn’t infallible, either.) Officiating is like the weather: It affects everyone equally, and there’s nothing you can do about it. And yes, that includes Karl Hess and the ACC’s basketball bunch.
But on this Thursday night stage, against this caliber of opponent, it wasn’t something the Wolfpack easily could absorb. To beat Clemson, to pull off a fourth straight upset of a top-10 team, the Wolfpack had no margin for error.
It certainly couldn’t afford to have a game-turning touchdown wiped out by what appeared to be an incorrect call.
And perhaps Underwood scores, and N.C. State takes the lead, and Clemson goes ahead and scores a bunch of unanswered points anyway. The Tigers are just that good.
But in that moment when the Wolfpack’s celebration was under way, as the fans roared, it felt like something in the atmosphere had changed: Clemson was in danger, and for the first time Thursday night it felt like N.C. State finally had wedged the door open for yet another upset.
And then, back at midfield, the whistle blew on all of that.