For all the ups and downs of the N.C. State football program over the past decade, it’s hard to beat this particular accomplishment: Clemson will be the fourth top-10 team to play N.C. State since 2005. The Wolfpack has beaten the last three.
Florida State in 2005. Clemson in 2011. Florida State in 2012. And now Clemson, No. 3 in the Associated Press poll, in 2013. There’s no common thread, nothing tying the three wins together, nothing tying the three wins to Thursday night.
“We’re more focused on the present,” Wolfpack wide receiver Quintin Payton said. “We know what happened in the past.”
Still, it feels like a little bit more than coincidence that the last three times the Wolfpack faced a top-10 team, it won. Good luck figuring it out. Other than N.C. State being a huge underdog, there’s no way to connect the dots.
It happened under different coaches (Tom O’Brien twice, Chuck Amato once) and in different places (Carter-Finley Stadium twice, Tallahassee, Fla., once) and with different quarterbacks (Mike Glennon twice, Marcus Stone once) and at different times (evening twice, afternoon once) and in different months (November twice, October once).
Almost all of those variables are new this time around: Dave Doeren, Pete Thomas, evening, September – and on a Thursday night, when N.C. State is 7-5 at home.
“I just say, ‘Look guys, a lot of people are thinking you don’t have a chance in this game, and everyone that’s played here knows that you do. Because of what you did last year with Florida State coming in, and the year before against Clemson,’” said Doeren, who will make his ACC coaching debut Thursday. “It doesn’t help you win this game. Those games aren’t going to win this game for us. But at least there’s guys in the room who were in those games who remember.”
It’s fair to wonder, given all the additional change this offseason, with a new coach, new system, uncertainty at quarterback and so on and so on, whether there’s anything at all that carries over. It’s also fair to point out there was as little that carried over from 2005 to 2011 as there is that carries over from 2012 to now.
Perhaps more worrisome for N.C. State is Clemson’s high-powered offense that hung 62 points on the Wolfpack in last year’s Textile Bowl. The Wolfpack has been surprisingly good defensively in its two wins this season, but N.C. State hasn’t seen anything like this yet. And if there’s anything the three upsets have in common, it’s that the Wolfpack allowed no more than 16 points in each of them.
“The whole world thinks we’re underdogs in this game,” N.C. State linebacker Zach Gentry said. “I like that. I always thought that was a great thing. Coming from where I’ve been, I’m an underdog. Whatever. If we’re the underdogs this game, that’s fine. We’ll take the role to heart, and that’ll be fine for us.”
It’s hard to believe N.C. State can beat Clemson on Thursday, very hard indeed, but it was hard to believe N.C. State could beat Florida State last year, or Clemson two years ago, or Florida State in 2005.
Each of those teams entered those games with its own unique baggage. Each of them emerged victorious.
“With the crowd behind us, you never know,” Doeren said. “Our guys are really excited, and that’s one thing about State, they have a history of upsetting football teams. Being in the underdog role against a great football team on national television is something that we’re really excited for. Now we just need to go do it.”
Likely? No. But impossible to rule out, because it was just as unlikely in 2005, and 2011, and 2012.