Despite their inability to achieve any sustained success, NC State football has an uncanny ability to really mess things up for others. Saturday, the lately surging Wolfpack demonstrated this ability once again in Chapel Hill, where they certifiably sucked every drop of Tar Heel life out of Kenan Stadium. In the style of their past season-ruining wins against national powerhouses like Florida State, the Pack made a confident and tough UNC team look as bad as, well.. the regular NC State football team.
The Tar Heels came into Saturday’s contest looking to add a needed win to their record, hoping to move to 4-3 in the ACC, 8-3 overall. The scent of a possible ACC Championship was pungent. They had earlier posted convincing wins on the board against the likes of Boston College, Georgia Tech, UConn, even Charlie Weis’ Notre Dame. And despite their close loss at College Park to Maryland the preceding week, UNC was beginning to look like a somewhat formidable football team. Even the crowds at Kenan Stadium exhibited a newfound confidence in their team—something that has been lacking in recent seasons. At times, these fans, led emphatically by students in the “Tar Pit,” have even come across as intimidating to visiting teams, making a visible mark on the Heel’s games. Judging by NC State’s meticulous dismantling of the Tar Heels on Saturday, however, one might think that John Bunting was still walking the UNC sidelines.
To start, the atmosphere at Kenan Stadium was beautifully enthusiastic. As expected, a blue-red sea covered the stands; neither side’s fans were at all bashful about expressing their disdain for the foe. The students in the Tar Pit, lively as ever, tilted the crowd’s balance in the direction of UNC. And, it seemed, most believed that NC State had absolutely no chance of competing with the at-home Heels.
Tom O’Brien and the Wolfpack apparently hadn’t gotten that memo.
State scored first, hitting a 39-yard field goal that brought the score to 3-0. State fans rejoiced; UNC fans were unfazed. Then, following a couple of lackluster Tar Heel drives, State scored again in the second quarter, this time a passing touchdown to an uncovered George Bryan. 10-to-nothing. And as is most often the case, this burst of unforeseen success brought out the blood-red raucousness in the State faithful. The only answer UNC had in the first half was a few more humdrum drives and a field goal. 10-3 at half.
The second half was, in a word, ugly. NC State methodically picked apart UNC’s defense, leaving the Tar Heels dumbfounded and and the light blue at Kenan lifeless. At times, the UNC secondary was virtually invisible. Wolfpack receivers routinely found themselves wide open down the field, and quarterback Russell Wilson connected on almost every necessary pass. The UNC offense fared no better. The at-times unstoppable Ryan Houston was shut down by State’s defense. Tar Heel quarterback T.J. Yates couldn’t buy a reception. This was not the game most had expected.
About halfway through the fourth quarter, the blue-red sea slowly became redder and redder as throngs of disgruntled Tar Heel fans poured out the exits (an action that disappointed at least one UNC Student who attended the game). This simply exacerbated the rabidity of the Wolfpack crowd. A call-and-response of “Wolf!... Pack!” bounced off the half-empty stadium seats. If you closed your eyes, this was no longer Kenan Stadium, it was Carter-Finley. The vulnerable and periodically high-school-esque Wolfpack football team had turned Chapel Hill red, all but dashing most Tar Heels’ hopes of an ACC Championship. Again, this pesky and undying NC State team ruined it for a late-season victim, the Tar Heels.
The most frustrating part of this whole story may easily be the perpetual mediocrity of NC State’s football program. It’s been six years since Chuck Amato (fastened securely on the shoulders of Philip Rivers) took the Pack to the Gator Bowl, and even then, the success was short-lived. The recipients of the Pack’s late-season sabotages haven’t faced Wolfpack teams with something huge to gain. This makes the Pack’s season-ruining victories that much more bitter and frustrating; i.e. there is hardly an ounce of reconciliation in knowing that you lost a game to the eventual winner of the Meineke Car Care Bowl. And for NC State fans, it seems bragging rights hold as much worth as actual success. UNC fans will be hearing it loudly and obnoxiously for the next 360 days or so.
As for future late-season NC State opponents, perhaps a slight adjustment in the approach to the game is prudent. The irksome thought of a drunk NC State fan bumptiously gloating about his Pack’s irrelevant win for an entire year ought to be motivation enough for any team to play a decent game. It seems, though, that in recent years, ACC teams have been lulled by State’s evident awfulness, only to subsequently be surprised by an unexplainable flash of real ability coming from the team in red.
A small amount of comfort for Tar Heels, however, may be derived from the fact that NC State’s football team is still far from actually good. At this point, they are the owners of the second-worst record in the ACC (just behind Duke, who we all know would have trouble competing with Millbrook High School). Tom O’Brien hasn’t yet shown much of an ability to inspire his team beyond a few late spoilers. This Saturday, Miami travels to Raleigh, where the expectations for the Wolfpack will still be low. Until NC State demonstrates the ability to be regularly successful, they will remain the aggravating neighbor, stepping into adjacent yards and ruining it for other, more deserving opponents.
(State fans, though, would most likely be quick to say that at this point, that’s fine with them.)