After holding what at one point looked like a comfortable lead, N.C. State let the game come down to a fourth-down conversion in the final minutes, and that left Dave Doeren understandably disturbed.
And yet the coach’s irritation seemed almost trivial, maybe even half-heartedly obligatory, when contrasted with his obvious satisfaction otherwise. The Wolfpack’s 33-25 win over Syracuse was another leap forward in so many ways that the way the team sagged in the late going was almost a welcome distraction to keep the roster focused amid continuing good fortune, with a short week and dangerous opponent ahead.
And after that baffling season-opening loss to South Carolina in Charlotte that left eyes rolling and heads shaking and the disgruntled muttering “same old State,” this team has moved steadily forward, clearing hurdles, checking boxes, doing things these players have never done in their careers, let alone their recent predecessors.
A week after they beat a ranked Atlantic Division power on the road, they avoided any ensuing letdown with a composed first-half performance against Syracuse – even if things got chippy in the third quarter and downright tense in the fourth – and moved to 2-0 in the ACC for the first time in 11 years.
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“I challenged our seniors, you guys are the ones that talk about wanting to be in a better bowl game, you better have leadership this week,” Doeren said. “Because if we don’t, it’s on you. And those guys did a great job.”
There’s nothing insignificant about that. It represents real and tangible progress from last season, from years past. Difficult games lie ahead, the first only five days away, but N.C. State has done everything it could, so far, to put the South Carolina loss behind it.
The next test comes quickly, with Lamar Jackson and a Louisville team that beat N.C. State by 41 last season coming to town, the wolf head already painted at midfield instead of the block “S” on Saturday in anticipation of Thursday’s national TV audience.
Even if last week’s win at Florida State ends up looking, down the road, like last year’s win over Notre Dame – less impressive in hindsight than at the moment of victory – it’s still a difficult place to go and win. And Syracuse isn’t the best team in the ACC, but the Orange can put up points, and put up enough in the second half to make N.C. State sweat.
“We knew that we needed discipline to come off a big game like we did and against an opponent that people might not think is as big as Florida State,” N.C. State’s Bradley Chubb said. “We knew what we were getting into.”
The Wolfpack has even, at times, made it look easy. At other times, not so easy, especially Saturday after taking a 26-7 halftime lead.
The kicking game was erratic, again, and discipline became an issue late in the third quarter. But after the skirmishing between the N.C. State defensive line and Syracuse offense, exchanging words and shoves, the Wolfpack regained its composure in the fourth. And after N.C. State let Syracuse get within one score late – in part because the Wolfpack kicked the extra point to make it 33-17 instead of going for a 2-point conversion to make it a three-score game – the offense was able to run out the clock, with Ryan Finley getting across the line on a fourth-and-1 quarterback sneak to end it.
“We got there, and pretty or not, I’m happy about it,” Doeren said.
On a day when the Wolfpack accomplished its main goals – avoid a letdown and move to 2-0 in the ACC – it still left itself plenty of work to do before Louisville arrives. Which is fine with Doeren. It’s the win that matters, and he doesn’t have to worry about his team getting ahead of itself even as it continues driving forward.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock