Plenty to play for: NC State moves past Clemson loss

The Wolfpack still has a slim chance of reaching the ACC Championship Game

NC State quarterback Ryan Finley (15) looks to the sideline from the huddle during the first half against the Clemson Tigers at Carter-Finley Stadium. (Rob Kinnan / USA TODAY Sports)

RALEIGH — Officiating, fan behavior and a mystery laptop clouded the immediate aftermath of NC State’s loss to Clemson on Saturday.

As the controversies fade into the background, however, the Wolfpack must prepare for a crucial game against Boston College with the possibility of altering the team’s goals for the season.

“Our team was great (Sunday),” Dave Doeren said. “I think that they understood the value of the film, and also the importance of moving forward. With this senior class, there’s an opportunity to play for a lot. We talked about that a lot with our guys. It’s still a 1-0 mentality with a lot out there. A team that, if they could win out, could win 10 games, and it’s been done once in program history. That’s where our eyes are right now.”

The 38-31 loss to Clemson did serious damage to the team’s initial goals. A College Football Playoff bid is off the table, and State no longer controls its own destiny in the Atlantic Division. There’s still a slight chance that the Pack could move higher than a 10-win season, however. The possibility of playing in the ACC Championship Game may be fading from view, but there’s still a path to Charlotte. Here’s how it looks:

Win out: Clearly any scenario that puts State atop the ACC’s Atlantic Division requires the Pack to win their final three conference games. Currently 4-1, NC State would need to win at Boston College, at Wake Forest and home against North Carolina.

The Pack will be heavily favored in the season finale against the Tar Heels, but that contest is always a “throw out the records” game, and UNC coach Larry Fedora would like nothing better than to be the one to throw a roadblock up in front of Doeren.

The Pack must clear two steep hurdles before returning to Carter-Finley for that game, however. Wake Forest has a vastly improved offense, led by quarterback John Wolford. State likely has the defensive edge over the Deacs, but a shootout in Winston-Salem remains a troubling proposition.

This week’s game against Boston College, who has always seemed to be a thorn in NC State’s side, will likely be the toughest remaining test.

“We move forward with an opportunity to play maybe the hottest team in the league in Boston College coming off a bye week,” Doeren said. “They’ve won four of their last five — three in a row. They’ve averaged over 35 points a game the last three games. They’ve found a really impressive running back in AJ Dillon. Their quarterback, Anthony Brown, has gotten better and batter and batter. An offense that’s only been sacked seven times.

“Defensively, they’re really sound,” he continued. “I like what they do schematically, and their kids understand it. Active front with Harold Landry and Zach Allen on the edges, and a secondary that’s tied with Miami for the most interceptions with 13. A safety, Lukas Denis that has five interceptions. Not a lot of stuff that they do, they just do it really well.”

Even if NC State pulls off the trifecta, beating all three remaining opponents, that would leave the Wolfpack at 7-1 in the ACC, which, at best, would tie them with Clemson. By virtue of Saturday’s win, Clemson would have the tiebreaker advantage and head to Charlotte.

So, in addition to winning out, State needs some help.

Clemson loses to Florida State: The Tigers’ schedule was front-loaded with ACC games. At 6-1 in the ACC, Clemson has two nonconference games in its final three. That leaves Saturday’s game against Florida State as the only opportunity for the Tigers to pick up a second conference loss, rendering their tiebreaker advantage over State irrelevant.

The Seminoles have had a down year after losing star quarterback Deondre Francois with a season-ending injury in the opener. In addition to the rivalry game against Clemson, Florida State is playing to keep its bowl hopes alive. With a 3-5 record and four games remaining, the Noles need to win three of four to extend their 35-year streak of making the postseason.

Clemson will be heavily favored at home against the depleted Seminoles, but there’s at least a chance that Florida State will provide an assist.

Of course, the Wolfpack players can’t worry about what happens in Death Valley. Doeren is confident his team will be ready to take care of its business.

“They’ve got grit. They’re tough kids. They want to win,” he said.

“It starts with this game,” he added. “We’ve got to get back. We don’t have any time to lick our wounds.”