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After two narrow misses against Clemson, a brutal reality check for NC State

NC State’s Finley: ‘We just never really got into a rhythm’

NC State quarterback Ryan Finley talks about the Wolfpack loss to the Clemson Tigers at Memorial Stadium in Clemson, SC Saturday, Oct. 20, 2018.
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NC State quarterback Ryan Finley talks about the Wolfpack loss to the Clemson Tigers at Memorial Stadium in Clemson, SC Saturday, Oct. 20, 2018.

No tears, no disbelief, no lingering what-might-have-beens. N.C. State at least was spared all of the emotional toll of its previous two losses to Clemson, decided by a missed field goal and a final drive that stalled.

There was none of that Saturday, nothing but the crushing reality that these two teams may play the same sport in the same conference, but have very little else in common this season.

Whatever notions the Wolfpack might have harbored of challenging Clemson for Atlantic Division superiority were quashed in a matter of minutes, and cruelly so. This is still Clemson’s league by a wide margin, until further notice. Of that, the Tigers left no doubt Saturday. Clemson’s second string moved as swiftly as the first, tacking on a fourth-quarter touchdown to make the final 41-7.

NC State coach Dave Doeren talks about the Wolfpack loss to the Clemson Tigers at Memorial Stadium in Clemson, S.C., Saturday, October 20, 2018.

This was all Clemson from start to finish. It took N.C. State almost 26 minutes to get across midfield. Its sixth-year quarterback turned the ball over three times. Its best receiver dropped a likely touchdown pass. Its defense had no answers at all for Trevor Lawrence or Travis Etienne. Maybe the infamous laptop was actually holding Clemson back.

“We got our (butts) kicked,” N.C. State center Garrett Bradbury said. “We didn’t execute, so that’s what’s going to happen.”

N.C. State started the day as one of the final eight unbeaten teams in college football and ended it as one of the six teams in the Atlantic Division who are all but certain to watch Clemson kick around whatever the Coastal spits out in Charlotte on December 1. (The Wolfpack, at least, will be preoccupied with East Carolina that day.)

Things could change, certainly, but the Wolfpack’s chance to make a statement has passed in the wake of Clemson making a statement of its own.

“There’s a lot of football left,” N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said. “Shoot, there’s six games left in the regular season and anything can happen. We just don’t control our own destiny any more. They got to go play Boston College in November up there and we’ve got to hope for a little bit of luck. It’s a setback for sure, but it doesn’t put us in the dark ages as a program. “

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Clemson running back Travis Etienne (9) celebrates with Sean Pollard (76) after scoring on a 3-yard run during the first half of N.C. State’s game against Clemson at Memorial Stadium in Clemson, S.C., Saturday, Oct. 20, 2018. Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com

While the dismal first half had echoes of the 2016 debacle at Louisville, the circumstances had more in common with the home loss to the Cardinals a year earlier. N.C. State was undefeated then, too – 4-0 and full of vigor after beating up four tomato cans to start the year. That left the Wolfpack all too unprepared for the speed of Lamar Jackson and the quality of Louisville’s defense, although it’s possible, in retrospect, nothing could have prepared anyone for Jackson.

The hurricane-related absence of West Virginia on N.C. State’s schedule this year left the Wolfpack in a similar position, yet to see anything like Clemson’s defense or Lawrence’s pinpoint rocketballs – although it’s also possible nothing could have prepared anyone for Lawrence, either.

Even simple out routes, like the one N.C. State scripted for the game’s first play, a simple pitch-and-catch from Ryan Finley to Kelvin Harmon on the right sideline, were squashed by the speed of Clemson’s defensive backs. The sure things were anything but.

Some of that had less to do with N.C. State than it did Clemson, although penalties and other issues that plagued the Wolfpack in its wins proved exceedingly fatal here.

“I just don’t think we played well,” Doeren said. “And they’re really good. You do those two things, it’s not going to be a good day.”

The Wolfpack still appears to be a good football team, based on the evidence so far, and given its remaining schedule could very well finish 10-2 or 9-3 or so. Maybe even 11-1. That’s a very respectable neighborhood.

But it’s not Clemson’s neighborhood. The Tigers are on the other side of town, among the manicured lawns with Alabama and Ohio State and … that’s about it. Others may rent there from season to season, but these days, those are the only teams buying that real estate.

Clemson has an NFL defense and an electric freshman quarterback who’s not scared of throwing the ball into the tightest of windows and has the ability to deliver it there. And Lawrence will be doing so not just for the rest of this season, but the next two seasons if all goes as planned. It’s a frightening thought.

N.C. State didn’t get its heart broken this year by a last-second miscue. It got its heart broken from the first drive, as the realization that there would be no chance at the upset sunk in over the next four quarters.

N.C. State might have been able to tell itself, after two narrow defeats, that it was closing the gap. The gap is still there. It may never have been bigger. The Tigers seemed curiously intent on proving that this time around, unwilling to let this one come down to the final play. Or even, for that matter, the second half.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock
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