RALEIGH, N.C. — When N.C. State hosts No. 3 Clemson (2-0) on Thursday night, it won’t be altogether unfamiliar territory for the Wolfpack. They’ve faced their share of top-10 opponents at home.
And more often than not, they’ve beaten them. Especially lately. The last three times N.C. State has faced a top-10 team — 2005, 2011 and 2012 — they’ve come out on top. The most recent victim was No. 3 Florida State last year, all but ensuring the Seminoles’ national title hopes were dashed.
And Clemson was a victim as well in 2011. Then ranked seventh in the country, the Tigers came into Carter-Finley Stadium and got their doors blown off, 37-13.
When the lights come on at Carter-Finley and the crowd is in full throat, almost anything can happen.
“I think right now, we’re just more focused on the present. We know what happened in the past,” wide receiver Quintin Payton said. “We’re not so much focusing on the past or what teams we have beaten. It’s more so having the mindset of beating this team that we’re up against this Thursday. I think the crowd will play a big factor in that.”
But this is a new year, and a lot of things are different. Dave Doeren is the head coach instead of Tom O’Brien, who coached the Wolfpack for two of those top-10 upsets. The personnel is different, too.
The last two quarterbacks for N.C. State, Russell Wilson and Mike Glennon, are in the NFL now. Pete Thomas received his first start at N.C. State against Richmond a little more than a week ago, and he wasn’t even the original starter: Brandon Mitchell is still out with a broken foot. Thomas has yet to throw a passing touchdown.
There are some important constants, though. One is the expectation that Clemson will — well, for lack of a better term, Clemson. Losing to an inferior ACC team just when things look brightest for the Tigers? That’s Clemson-ing.
The other constant? N.C. State’s crowd fueling the team. It will be a prime-time affair, and the fans will be ready to go. So Doeren doesn’t think he has to remind his team about their history of upsetting higher-ranked opponents. It just helps them know that in spite of what they’re hearing — that they have no chance to beat the Tigers — they do indeed have a chance.
“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 that played in those games that remember,” Doeren said. “Our young guys are just out there playing. They don’t know any better. So for the older guys, I think it’s a source of pride and something that I know our fans obviously are a big part of those wins with the noise that we can create and generate on third down and key moments defensively.”
Last year, N.C. State played Clemson in Death Valley and lost in a 62-48 shootout. Not too many teams win in Death Valley, even when the Tigers are just mediocre.
But not a lot of teams win at Carter-Finley, either. And that gives this Wolfpack team hope.
Linebacker Zach Gentry was talking to Thomas about the game earlier this week, and how they’d like their own chances a lot less if the game were in Death Valley. But it’s not.
“We think we’re a good team. I know we had trouble (against Richmond), but I think that adversity we faced last game was good for us,” Gentry said. “I think Thursday night, we should have a pretty good chance of putting it up against them this game.”
It’s not just lip service, though it might seem that way. Every player is going to say their team has a chance to win, or that they expect to win, regardless of what they really think.
But in this case, how could anyone argue with the N.C. State players, considering the history?
“(The game is) very winnable. We expect to win,” Payton said. “I just think we have to not beat ourselves, execute on offense and stop them on defense.”
No head coach minds playing the role of the underdog one bit. And N.C. State has embraced that role and thrived in it over the years. Gentry, a bit of an underdog himself, revels in it.
“The whole world thinks we’re underdogs in this game, but I like that,” Gentry said. “So if we’re underdogs this game, that’s fine. I think we kind of take that role to heart and that’ll be fun for us.”
N.C. State’s defense has practiced against an up-tempo offense for most of the summer and fall camp, and it showed against Louisiana Tech’s no-huddle attack in the opener. N.C. State’s defense wasn’t perfect, but it didn’t get tired. And while the Clemson offense, led by Heisman candidate Tajh Boyd, is going to be a much better version of that, at least they’ve seen it before.
Clemson’s defense isn’t unbeatable, either. If the offensive line can give Thomas time to make plays — and if Thomas can take care of the ball (he has three interceptions in two games) — who knows what could happen?
“That’s the one thing about State — they have a history of upsetting football teams,” Doeren said. “Being in the underdog role against a great football team on national television is something that we’re really excited for, and now we just need to go do it.”