N.C. State’s players came running off the practice field smiling Friday, ebullient and energetic. These are not the greatest times for the Wolfpack, a team that so underachieved that it got its coach fired despite making a bowl game. Those same circumstances have imbued that bowl game with new significance, and the team with new life.
It’s one last chance for N.C. State to prove itself, one last chance to prove this team can be the kind of team it thought it was in August, when nine or 10 wins seemed like a worst-case scenario and it appeared Tom O’Brien had the Wolfpack ready for the best season in his tenure.
That wasn’t how it worked out. Instead of the ACC championship game or a BCS bowl game, the Wolfpack will play Vanderbilt in the Music City Bowl. Yet it feels at times like there’s just as much on the line.
“Since I’ve been here, we’ve been a pretty up and down team,” senior safety Earl Wolff said Friday. “I feel like this bowl game can establish our program, honestly. Coming out with eight wins would be huge for us as a team, even for coach O’Brien. We want to win this one for him, too. As a senior, I want to go out with a win and I know those guys want to have something to build off of during winter workouts and spring to go into next season with some momentum.”
Is the Wolfpack the team that dealt Florida State the loss that knocked the Seminoles out of the national title picture? Or the team that struggled against Tennessee, lost to North Carolina for the first time in six years and flat-lined in front of its own crowd against Virginia?
These players desperately want the answer to be the former.
“People remember your last game,” junior cornerback David Amerson said. “We want to end off our season right. We want to go out as winners. We’ve got something to prove every game. We didn’t reach our all-time goal of going to the ACC (championship), so we want to end this with a bang.”
It isn’t just the players. Dana Bible has spent his entire career as an assistant coach. This will be his first – and, at age 59, likely only – chance to be a head coach, even on an interim basis. Only three years removed from a battle with cancer that took him off the sideline entirely, there’s nothing interim about the title for him.
If the team has one last chance to prove itself, Bible has one chance to prove himself, too.
“I’ve always wanted to be a head coach, and this is the first opportunity I’ve had to do that,” Bible said. “What the situation is and the hand that’s dealt is a non-issue. I’m going to do the very best I can to put this team in a position to be successful and our coaches are the same way.”
Wolff shook Bible’s hand as he came off the field, the two exchanging a laugh, the offensive coach and defensive player with one final goal in common: To prove that this season was an aberration, that this team is better than 7-5, to show what might have been.
“No, it didn’t work out the way we planned it to be,” sophomore defensive lineman Art Norman said. “We just want to go out with a bang.”
For these seniors and this coaching staff, it’s all they have left. A win over Vanderbilt won’t make anyone forget this season, but it would certainly be something to remember.