RALEIGH — NC State, welcome to perhaps the biggest game in program history.
The No. 10 Wolfpack will travel to Death Valley on Saturday to face fifth-ranked Clemson for a game that will position the winner as the early-season frontrunner in the ACC.
“It’s a great matchup against a very talented group with an experienced and talented staff,” said NC State coach Dave Doeren. “I have great respect for Coach (Dabo) Swinney and his program. And it’s two top-10 teams competing on a national stage. It’s why we do this.”
It’s also the first time in program history the Wolfpack will be part of a game between two teams ranked in the top 10, and it comes a year after NC State defeated the Tigers in an exciting 27-21 double-overtime win at Carter-Finley Stadium.
Now the 4-0 Wolfpack are hoping to do it again, this time at Memorial Stadium.
“It’s an away game, so we know it’s going to be a hostile environment. But we’re ready,” said junior receiver Devin Carter. “We just focus on ourselves and play faceless opponents every week. We worry about ourselves, and that’s how we’re going to take on this week as well.”
Even Mother Nature seems interested in being part of a matchup ESPN chose as its site for this week’s “College GameDay.” Hurricane Ian is projected to come through South Carolina on Saturday, bringing with it the potential for a sloppy prime-time game between unbeatens.
“I’ve been through the hurricane situation before,” Doeren said, referring to NC State’s 10-3 home win over Notre Dame in 2016. “I hope we don’t have to play in something like the Notre Dame game, but we’ll be prepared if it is raining. We’ll prepare for the worst and hope for the best.”
Leading the way for NC State will be an eighth-ranked scoring defense that is looking forward to the challenge that Clemson presents.
“We have a lot of veteran guys on the team, and we’ve been in hostile environments before,” said junior linebacker Drake Thomas. “We’ve played on the road. All the outside stuff as far as top 10 shouldn’t really play a factor in anything that we’re doing. We just have to focus on ourselves and show up as our best version.”
But like the Wolfpack, the Tigers sport a formidable and experienced defense.
“We talk about them, it starts with their defensive front,” Doeren said. “They’re really, really talented. They have a great rotation on the D-line. They’re skilled, they’re big and they’re really good football players on that defensive front.”
The Tigers’ depleted secondary, however, was exploited last week in Clemson’s 51-45 double-overtime win over Wake Forest. A key for NC State will be targeting the Tigers’ young defensive backs and winning one-on-one battles on deep balls.
On offense, Clemson junior quarterback DJ Uiagalelei has seemingly found his footing after a poor 2021 season, throwing for 1,033 yards, 10 touchdowns and one interception in leading the Tigers to a 4-0 start to the season.
Uiagalelei threw for five touchdowns against Wake Forest, his best performance of the season in Clemson’s biggest game to date.
Add in potent offensive weapons like running back Will Shipley — the Mathews native has 353 yards and seven touchdowns — and receiver Beaux Collins (13 receptions, 218 yards, four TDs), and the Wolfpack defense will have its hands full.
NC State’s biggest challenge, though, might be itself — specifically its mercurial offense. The Wolfpack’s attack has looked strong against weak competition but struggled against tougher opponents.
It will need to be better than good to steal a win in Death Valley.
There is reason for optimism after junior quarterback Devin Leary completed passes to 10 different receivers in last week’s 41-10 win over UConn.
“From an offensive standpoint, we started fast,” Doeren said of the game against the Huskies. “I don’t know if you can start faster than that. One of our goals was to be better after the catch, better after contact, have more yards after contact, and Devin Carter answered that. Him and Thayer Thomas, Keyon Lesane, Demie Sumo-Karngbaye — there were a lot of guys who took that to heart. Devin Leary also played fast, made fast decisions, distributed the ball and was accurate.”
NC State should have a strong one-two punch in the backfield with both junior Jordan Houston and sophomore Sumo-Karngbaye ready to play after battling through injuries.
“We will focus obviously on our opponent and know those guys, but more importantly we need to know what we need to get better at and get it done,” Doeren said. “We’re playing in a great venue against the longest home winning streak in college football. We know the crowd will be into it and it will be loud.”
The Wolfpack also know that to take the next step and become a College Football Playoff contender, they will need to rise to the occasion.
“We expected to be in this position,” Doeren said. “We expected to be 4-0 going into Clemson, and we look forward to playing a great team. But we’ll continue to focus on us. The path that has gotten us here is the path we’re going to stay on.
“It’s individual and collective improvement through great practice, through great meetings and taking care of business.”