CLEMSON, S.C. -- Football seasons, not just games, sometimes swing on a single decision.
In N.C. State's case, its hope of playing its way to the ACC championship game next month in Charlotte withered Saturday afternoon in Death Valley when the conservative decision not to try to gain 1 yard on fourth down turned into a 4-yard punt that might have, concurrently, rescued Clemson's bowl hopes.
Wolfpack coach Tom O'Brien was left with a multitude of mistakes to consider in the aftermath of N.C. State's 14-13 loss to Clemson, but it was the decision to not go for a first down when facing a fourth-and-1 at the Tigers' 43 late in the game that lingered like a deep bruise.
Less than three and a half minutes remained when O'Brien sent punter Andy Leffler on the field with the assignment of pinning Clemson deep in its own territory. With three timeouts remaining, O'Brien decided to bet on his defense rather than his offense, believing the Wolfpack could get the ball back in decent field position with another chance to erase its one-point deficit.
Why did O'Brien do it?
"Because I didn't think we'd punt the ball 4 yards," O'Brien said with an edge of anger in his voice.
He defended his coaching logic by saying the Wolfpack hadn't made it on third-and-1 a play earlier, so he didn't have a lot of faith his offense could gain the needed yard on fourth down. Actually, the Wolfpack did gain a yard on what was third-and-2, but O'Brien had a legitimate concern given the way Clemson's defensive line had dominated the ACC's best statistical offense.
But if he didn't think his Wolfpack could gain 1 yard, what was the chance it could gain more than that, which seemed likely had his defense forced a late Clemson punt and would be operating against a dying clock?
When Leffler's punt went essentially nowhere, so may have N.C. State's run at winning the ACC's Atlantic Division. Now the Wolfpack must win its three remaining games and get help from other teams to land in Bank of America Stadium on Dec. 4.
That could happen. If this season has demonstrated anything, it's shown that ACC football is the definition of mediocrity. That may not look great in the national polls, but it keeps Saturday afternoons open for the unexpected.
Look at Clemson. Seven weeks ago, the Tigers had No. 1 Auburn on the ropes before losing in overtime. Last week, the Tigers went belly up at Boston College. Then, despite five fumbles, one interception and plenty of mistakes, Clemson beat N.C. State for the seventh straight time.
With a road trip to defenseless Wake Forest sandwiched between a game at Florida State and the grudge match in Death Valley against South Carolina, the Tigers need just one win to become bowl eligible, no doubt putting a smile on the face of Meineke Car Care Bowl officials in Charlotte.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, who didn't like much of what he saw Saturday, including some questionable officiating calls, could only shake his head when it was over.
"It's not against the rules to win ugly," Swinney said.
Good thing or there would have been no winner Saturday.
N.C. State had a field goal blocked. It had an interception return for a touchdown called back by a penalty. A Mustafa Greene fumble at the Wolfpack 22 set up Clemson's first touchdown.
Pile them all together, throw on a 4-yard punt on a fourth-and-1 and it handed N.C. State's destiny to other teams.
"When you get a team like that, you have to put your foot on their throat," N.C. State linebacker Tyrell Manning said. "We didn't do that. If you let them hang around, they get happy and bad things happen."
Yes, they do.