SOUTH BEND, Ind. — NC State got a glimpse at what big boy football looks like Saturday.
It’s a lesson that cost the Wolfpack a 35-14 loss to Notre Dame and an end to its six-game winning streak.
But if there was a silver lining to an otherwise disappointing day under a blue-gray October sky in South Bend, it’s the lesson coach Dave Doeren’s team learned as it turns its attention to another heavyweight opponent, national champion Clemson, for a game next week that will likely determine the ACC Atlantic Division championship.
“We just have to be way more physical,” Jarius Morehead, a sophomore safety said after the ACC’s best rushing defense got pounded for 318 yards on the ground by the bigger, stronger Irish. “I didn’t expect gaps to be open that big, but it happens.”
The Wolfpack came into Saturday’s game riding high with visions of a top-10 ranking and spot in the College Football Playoff dancing in its head.
After getting off to a promising start, though, those dreams were dashed by an opponent that dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball and systematically wore State down into submission.
It didn’t help matters that three members of the Wolfpack’s vaunted defensive line — end Darian Roseboro, tackle Justin Jones and his backup Eurndraus Bryant — were knocked out of the game with injuries.
Even with them on the field, State had its hands full trying to bring down Notre Dame’s 6-foot-2, 225-pound steamroller of a running back Josh Adams, who enhanced his Heisman Trophy resume with a 202-yard performance that included a 77-yard touchdown run.
“I thought we had a good scheme. I think they did a good job of adjusting,” Doeren said. “You just have to tackle. That’s the No. 1 fundamental on defense and we didn’t do that well enough. Disappointing.”
Disappointing yes, but hardly disheartening.
That’s because the loss, as sound a beating as it was, had absolutely no bearing whatsoever on State’s chances of accomplishing its primary goal — winning the ACC Atlantic Division championship.
As the only team in the division without a conference loss, the Wolfpack still holds its destiny in its own hands heading into next Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. showdown with Clemson at Carter-Finley Stadium.
“We’ve still got some opportunities in the ACC,” star defensive end Bradley Chubb said. “That’s our conference, so if we want to win that, we still have the opportunity to do it.”
In addition to Clemson, State has ACC games remaining at Boston College and Wake Forest and at home against rival North Carolina.
If there’s one thing the Wolfpack has going for it, it’s that none of those remaining opponents plays the kind of smash mouth, pound-it-out style Notre Dame did.
But even though Clemson features a more diverse up-tempo attack on offense and a defense that relies on quickness not bulk, the Tigers are by no means soft. State is going to have to do a better job of matching them physically than they did the Irish, especially at the point of attack, if it wants to have any chance at keeping its ACC title hopes alive.
It’s also going to have to avoid the smaller mistakes that helped doom it at Notre Dame, where it committed a season-high 12 penalties, failed to pick up a yard on fourth down in the red zone, got shut out in the second half and gave up a back-breaking pick six on a play in which a mental lapse turned into a 69-yard pick six.
“There’s a lot to play for left in the season,” Doeren said. “I said to the guys we’re going to go home, we’re going to look at what happened, why we didn’t play the way we expected. We’ll have those answers as we watch the film, we’ll fix (the mistakes) and be ready to play Clemson at home, which is a game I know our guys are excited about.”