On October 15th, 2016, the NC State Wolfpack lined up for a 33-yard field goal attempt to knock off the at that time the number four ranked Clemson Tigers. Kicker Kyle Bambard had a chance to send NC State into college football immortality. Not in the aspect that they won a national championship or won a college football playoff game, but in the aspect that NC State, a school that had been defined by its inability to close out big games, could finally right their wrongs and dethrone the juggernaut of college football. Every fan in Death Valley that day collectively held their breath for a few short seconds, knowing that if the lowly NC State Wolfpack could put this kick through the yellow uprights, it would massively shake up the college football rankings and playoff scene.
Kyle Bambard took his usual steps back when getting ready to kick a field goal, preparing to kick the most important kick of his life. He lined it up, kicked it with every bit of force his body could produce, and it sailed right down the middle of the uprights. Ball game.
Except, it wasn’t the ball game.
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney had called a timeout mere seconds before the kick flew off Bambard’s cleats, meaning that they would have to attempt the field goal again. As the old saying goes, lightning never strikes the same place twice, and that proved true here. Bambard sailed his kick wide, and as every Clemson fan in Death Valley screamed and celebrated, the realization of what had just happened seeped over every Wolfpack fan: Just like every single time before this game, they could not convert their opportunity to really make something special out of their season.
NC State WR Ben Grazen (#80) reacts to Clemson’s 24-17 overtime win over NC State on October 15th, 2016
The game went into overtime, but they could have just called the game and given the win to Clemson, because every Wolfpack fan watching that game knew exactly what was about to transpire. NC State rolled over like a dog, and Clemson cruised in overtime to win 24-17. Fans were devastated, the coaches were in disbelief, and the football gods chuckled at the ineptitude of the NC State Wolfpack.
NC State was 4-1 going into that game against Clemson. They finished the season 6-6. The week after the Clemson loss, the Wolfpack got blown out by 41 against Louisville, and two weeks later lost to 8th ranked Florida State by four points. NC State had a golden opportunity to turn their season, no, turn their entire football program around with a win, and it slipped right through their hands.
Fast forward a year, and NC State had an even better team with an even better chance to knock off those dreaded Clemson Tigers.
After suffering a terrible loss to South Carolina in week 1 of the 2017 college football season, a game in which they outgained South Carolina 504 yards to 215 yards, Wolfpack fans were distraught, as a defense that returned nine starters from the previous year and a talented offense lead by QB Ryan Finley couldn’t beat a South Carolina team that put up half the yards that the Wolfpack did. However, the expectations for the season rapidly changed, when on a cool Thursday night, under the bright lights of Carter-Finley Stadium, the 24th-ranked Wolfpack beat the 17th-ranked Louisville Cardinals led by Lamar Jackson.
On this night at the beginning of October, NC State played the best game it had played in years, defeating the Cardinals 39-25. I was there in the stadium that night, and as linebacker Germaine Pratt intercepted a Lamar Jackson throw and returned it for a touchdown to go up 39-25 and officially seal the game, I remember feeling as though this team was capable of beating anybody, anywhere, on any given day. As I walked out of the buzzing stadium, I saw fans jumping up and down in pure jubilation, knowing that NC State was 5-1 with a fantastic opportunity to finally make something special out of a promising start to the football season.
As I walked back to my car, I heard one fan proclaim something that has stuck with me to this day. This overjoyed young man was talking to his friends, and he yelled “We can beat Clemson this year!” Indeed, that is what was on everyone’s mind, as the Wolfpack had finally shown that maybe, just maybe they could at long last beat those Tigers.
Maybe this really was NC State’s year.
Almost a month later, on November 4th, 2017, the Wolfpack welcomed Clemson to Raleigh, and battled in one of the most back and forth football games I have ever watched. No team lead by more than 10 points at a time, and it all came down to the final drive. Down 38-31, NC State needed a drive to tie the game and force overtime. QB Ryan Finley led the team all the way down the field, converting on a 4th down and 3rd down earlier in the drive. On a 4th and 10 from Clemson’s 28 yard line and 27 seconds left in the game, Ryan Finley found Wolfpack WR Jakobi Myers, now with the Patriots, for a huge completion, moving the sticks all the way to Clemson’s four yard line.
With 20 seconds left and four chances to get into the end zone, the Wolfpack looked like they were in a fantastic position to force overtime and potentially dethrone their enemies. A touchdown would have only forced overtime, sure, but NC State would have had all the momentum in the world. The light at the end of the tunnel was almost visible, and if the Wolfpack could just gain four more yards, they would force overtime.
But NC State never got to set up shop at the four yard line.
An illegal shift was called against WR Stephen Louis on the 4th down play, as Louis tried to step up onto the line of scrimmage before the ball was snapped and was caught in motion, thus giving NC State a 4th and 15 instead of 1st and goal. Finley threw up a prayer that was not answered, and the game was over. NC State had done it again. 2016 was a missed field goal, and now 2017 was a penalty that had no effect on the game-saving play.
NC State yet again choked in the biggest moment on the biggest stage.
While NC State did beat Clemson last year, securing the Wolfpack’s first win over Clemson in roughly a decade, they yet again failed to make something special out of a promising start. This has simply been the story of the NC State Wolfpack football program for the last six decades.
NC State lost to Miami 31-30 last year, in a game they had no business loosing. On 2nd and 10 from the NC State 44 yard line, QB Devin Leary found WR Devin Carter for an easy pickup that would have moved the ball past midfield, putting the Wolfpack on the cusp of field goal range. Instead of converting this play that would have put the Wolfpack a mere 10 yards away from field goal range, Carter dropped a pass in which no defended was within five yards of him, killing the drives momentum and eventually leading to a turnover on downs that sealed the game for Miami. While NC State did have a good season last year, they blew their chance yet again to really be something special from a national perspective.
It has again and again been the same old story year after year with NC State
However, this week against Clemson, NC State has a chance to alter the course of their football program. Games like these are program defining games. NC State is ranked the highest they have ever been ranked in the modern football era, playing a night game against a top five ranked Clemson team in a game that could decide who wins the ACC Atlantic division. Not to mention that college gameday will be at Death Valley, meaning that this will be only the second time ever that NC State will have gameday for a game they were playing in.
NC State Quarterback Devin Leary throwing a pass against Texas Tech on September 17, 2022
The stakes could not be any higher and the game could not be any more hyped up.
A win over Clemson could be the moment that Wolfpack fans have so desperately wanted: A chance to finally convert on the biggest stage. They barely survived against East Carolina in week 1, and this is their chance to convert on that oh-so-lucky break,
NC State has seen the likes of Philip Rivers, Russel Wilson, Mike Glennon, Jacoby Brissett, and Ryan Finley all start at QB for them, and none of these eventually NFL-starters ever made NC State into anything more than a slightly above average football team that was not nearly talented enough to break into the top 10. But it could all change with this Saturday at Clemson. While NC State are not the favorites to win this game, a win could finally banish the demons that have haunted the Wolfpack for so many years. A loss would simply continue the trend that has defined NC State football, and Wolfpack fans would simply move on with their life just as they have always done.
The country will be watching you, NC State. This is your chance.
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