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N.C. State is slumping at the wrong time, but the Wolfpack is looking at its next challenge as an open-ended opportunity.
Clemson could end up being the worst possible opponent at the worst possible time for N.C. State, especially in a primetime game on homecoming. The Tigers will enter Saturday night’s game at Carter-Finley Stadium as a clearcut favorite, easily the best team in the ACC, and winners in 14 of the last 15 match-ups with the Wolfpack.
Head coach Dave Doeren is 0-6 against Clemson while at N.C. State, including a pair of agonizingly close losses in 2016 and 2017 along with a blowout defeat last season. The Pack was thumped in its last outing Saturday at Wake Forest and has lost three of its last four games.
And yet the mood in Raleigh is anything but glum.
“We look forward to playing a home game,” Doeren explained in his weekly press conference. “It’s been a month since we’ve been back in Carter-Finley and excited for homecoming. It’s a night-game opportunity against a tremendous team. It’s what you play for, to play against such a good team, such a well-coached team, and to do it at home in a night environment at the Carter. It’s been awesome to have those types of games. I know we’ll have a tremendous crowd.”
Redshirt-freshman quarterback Devin Leary was a pedestrian 17-of-45 passing for 149 yards with one touchdown toss and two interceptions in his first career college start Saturday. It will not get any easier against a fourth-ranked and defending national champion Clemson squad that is 58-4 in its last 62 games.
The challenge is daunting, but Leary echoes his coach’s faith.
“For me it’s win the play and go right on to the next play, no matter what happens,” Leary said. “If we can win every single play we should be able to do well in the game. We’re playing with the guys we have now and our mentality every single week that Coach Doeren tells us is 1-0. That’s our job and what we set out to do.”
The season has not been a chore despite a slew of injuries and a number of freshmen receiving significant playing time.
It has been a sort of a reboot-type season for Doeren, who faced something similar in 2014 but that team found a way to go bowling. N.C. State seemed on the cusp of double-digit win campaigns in each of the previous two years and had legitimate shots to beat the Tigers on a few occasions since Doeren took over in 2013.
Doeren is not lamenting what could have been but instead focusing on what is currently happening. The youth of his team does present a situational change from his previous four seasons.
“They understand the value of their reps, and then there are some guys we need to get better now,” Doeren said. “They haven’t matured as fast, but they are playing. It’s not a confidence thing. I think it’s a lot. You were in a high school classroom last year. It’s the amount that has changed in their lives and the intensity of all that is different for them, helping them understand the grind. It’s different to have to do that your first year. I’m impressed with some of those guys and how they are dealing with it. Like you’d expect, for some it’s harder.”
Clemson is the next opponent. Will N.C. State step up? Doeren is eager to find out.
“This week the challenge is obviously a great one when you’re playing a team that’s done what Clemson has done,” Doeren said. “I can go through their statistics, but you all know where they are at. They do a really good job. They are well-coached with good players, and we have to go out there and be the best that we can be with what we do.”
N.C. State opened its 2019-20 season Tuesday with a home game against Georgia Tech. It marked the first time since the 1967-68 season that N.C. State has opened the season with an ACC game. That Wolfpack squad tipped off its campaign with a 79-63 win at Wake Forest on Dec. 2, 1967.
Redshirt-junior forward D.J. Funderburk has returned to practice but won’t play in the season opener against Georgia Tech. Funderburk had been suspended indefinitely from the program recently for a violation of team policy. Last season he averaged 8.8 points per game and finished second in the ACC’s Sixth Man of the Year voting.
Entering Tuesday night, N.C. State has won 24 of its last 25 season-openers and is 19-1 overall in season openers at PNC Arena.