RALEIGH It’s not what N.C. State achieved Saturday. It’s what the Wolfpack avoided.
By securing bowl eligibility and, at worst, a .500 regular-season record with a 42-13 win over Wake Forest, the Wolfpack met the minimum expectations for this season. More important, N.C. State took care of business when a loss would have been catastrophic.
In college football, sometimes dodging the bad losses is as important as winning the big ones. (Exhibit A: Duke’s home loss to Virginia Tech earlier Saturday. Exhibit B: East Carolina. And so on.) Considering the stakes, this one qualified in both categories.
Unlike Clemson nine days earlier, the Wolfpack never let the Demon Deacons hang around. Wake Forest went three-and-out on seven of its eight first-half drives as N.C. State took a 21-3 lead into halftime and quickly extended it with Bryan Underwood’s 75-yard touchdown run on the first play of the second half.
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The Wolfpack made it look easy, running all over the Deacons on its way to one of the top 10 rushing performances in school history, N.C. State’s first ACC home win in almost two years and the biggest conference win of the Dave Doeren era, not to mention the Wolfpack’s fourth bowl trip in the past five years.
There’s still the rivalry game at North Carolina in two weeks and the possibility of going 8-5, but even 6-7 would represent progress, even if only marginally.
Either way, the Wolfpack avoided the worst-case scenario for the season, which would have been missing out on a bowl game despite a soft nonconference schedule and a home game against the Demon Deacons, who certainly appear headed for 0-8 in the ACC, same as N.C. State a season ago. The Wolfpack needed to scrape together one other win, and got it at Syracuse.
“It’s a good feeling. We were rebuilding last year and we have a young team now -- not so young now that they’ve played a couple games,” Underwood said. “We’re coming along great. To know that all the hard work we did from the offseason to now has paid off, we’re going to keep grinding more.”
N.C. State’s coaching staff is occasionally guilty of overthinking things but played it simple and straight Saturday. The Wolfpack went back to the run again and again and was rewarded again and again. At one point, N.C. State even threatened to post its biggest ACC win ever, before Wake Forest added a garbage-time touchdown.
So: goal achieved. Six wins. The postseason. And the Wolfpack got there without letting it come down to the season’s 12th game in Chapel Hill, although a win in that game would still upgrade N.C. State’s bowl prospects considerably while potentially denying the Tar Heels a bowl of their own, depending how they fare Thursday at Duke.
At 6-6, the potential destinations aren’t all that desirable -- most likely Detroit, Shreveport or Annapolis, Md., the latter undeniably scenic but threatening a possible grudge match with East Carolina -- but the bowl game itself isn’t what matters. It’s all the extra bowl practices the Wolfpack will get, the first step toward aiming higher next season.
“We doubled our win total in one year,” Doeren said. “You can see the indoor (facility) being built out there. A lot of progress being made, some really good young players that are continuing to get better and some senior players who are playing like seniors.”
This was a starting point, the lowest rung on the ladder. It was good enough this season. It won’t be -- it can’t be -- in the future. But for now, it’s reason to celebrate, if only a little bit.