RALEIGH — The folks at ESPN GameDay are heading to Pullman, Wash., on Saturday to soak up the atmosphere surrounding a game between Washington State and Oregon rather than going to Death Valley for the ACC Atlantic Division showdown between No. 3 Clemson and No. 15 NC State.
They’re in the minority when it comes to hyping the battle between two of the nation’s eight remaining unbeaten college football teams.
There’s so much riding on the outcome, especially for the Wolfpack, that State’s usually understated coach Dave Doeren isn’t even bothering to try to downplay its significance.
“This is why you work your butt off as a staff, just like our players do, and you want to be in this position where you’re playing for a lot, against another team that’s playing for a lot,” Doeren said Monday at his regular weekly press conference. “This is what it’s all about.
“It’s about elevating our program and it’s about doing something that we haven’t been able to do as a coach, as a player yet. All of those things matter to us, to them. That’s why you work so hard.”
While Clemson has been a stumbling block preventing many of its ACC rivals from achieving their goals over the decade since coach Dabo Swinney took over the program, it has been a particular albatross around the Wolfpack’s neck.
State (5-0, 2-0 ACC) has beaten the Tigers only once over the past 14 meetings — in 2011 — and hasn’t won at Death Valley since a 38-6 victory in 2002.
The past two years have been especially heart-wrenching.
In 2016, the Wolfpack had the defending national champions all lined up for an upset of epic proportions until kicker Kyle Bambard shanked a 33-yard field goal attempt on the final play of regulation. Clemson then went on to win the game in overtime.
Then last season, with a chance to dethrone the Tigers as Atlantic Division champions and earn a shot at its first ACC football championship since 1979, State failed to get over the hump again in a 38-31 loss that wasn’t decided until the game’s final possession.
While quarterback Ryan Finley wouldn’t classify the close losses as the toughest of his three-year career at State, saying “they’re all pretty tough,” he did say that beating Clemson was high on his to-do list of before he leaves at the end of this season.
“Obviously Clemson is one we’ve got circled,” Finley said. “We’re excited to go over there and play.”
The anticipation has been building through an open date that allowed the Wolfpack to heal some of its physical ailments and work on cleaning up the mistakes that made its most recent game against Boston College much closer than it should have been.
Whatever advantage NC State might have gotten from the additional week of preparation, however, was offset by the fact that the Tigers (5-0, 3-0) didn’t play last week either.
Not that veterans such as Jakobi Meyers are looking for any kind of extra edge.
“They’re another team. They strap up like we strap up,” the junior wide receiver said. “As long as we give our best, I think we’ve got a shot with anybody.”
With an offense led by the ACC’s leading passer and a defense that has exceeded all expectations through the first half of the season, not to mention a kicker (Chris Dunn) capable of making routine field goals, this could be the Wolfpack’s best chance for a while to knock off the Tigers and pursue its first conference championship since 1979.
That doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy.
Not only does Clemson lead the league in fewest points allowed at 14.5 per game, but it also ranks second in points scored with an average of 42.2 behind the passing of freshman Trevor Lawrence and the explosive running of Travis Etienne.
The key to beating the Tigers, Doeren said, is to match their physicality, avoid getting rattled by the crowd and taking advantage of opportunities when they’re presented.
“We put ourselves in places to win some of those close games, particularly against Clemson, and they’ve made the plays at the end that we needed to make,” the Wolfpack coach said. “That’s really what it’s about, it’s finding a way to finish somebody off, whether it’s on defense or offense or special teams with that key play.”
Even if State is able to finish what it starts this time around, it will still have work left to do to win the Atlantic and advance the ACC Championship Game in Charlotte on Dec. 1. But with the rest of the division struggling, especially traditional power Florida State, the Wolfpack would have a clear inside track toward a goal nearly four decades in the making.
“I think all seniors across the country would say that they want to leave a legacy behind that they can be proud of,” Doeren said. “Doing something that you haven’t done yet is always a part of that. When you talk about raising the bar, it’s something that these guys want to be able to say they did.”