The No. 20 N.C. State Wolfpack (6-2, 4-0 ACC) and the No. 4 Clemson Tigers (7-1, 5-1 ACC) will meet for the 86th time Saturday, but none of the 85 meetings between the two schools has carried more meaning than this week’s game.
The Wolfpack have had their share of ups and downs as a program under head coach Dave Doeren, who took over in 2013.
After going 3-9 in his first season and failing to win an ACC game, the Wolfpack have put together back-to-back-to-back winning seasons (8-5, 7-6, 7-6), while also winning their bowl game in two of the three seasons (2014, 2016).
But this season has the makings of a special season — that is if the Wolfpack can avenge last season’s overtime loss to Clemson and stake their claim to their first Atlantic Division championship.
“Looking forward to Homecoming game, a chance to play a great Clemson football team, and two teams fighting for first place in the division,” Doeren said. “A great challenge for us with our team, and as we look at the last game we played, we know we can play better. And losing some key players during the game didn't help, but we still had some opportune moments and some critical errors that cost us at key moments.
“All big games come down to one or two or three plays, so it's going to be a game where those plays have got to go our way, and it's our job as coaches to get them there and their job to finish them, and looking forward to watching it happen.”
N.C. State on offense
The Wolfpack offense goes as quarterback Ryan Finley, who threw for more than 3,000 yards and 18 touchdowns last season.
This season, Finley has not had to be a one-man show -- behind an offensive line that returned four of their five starters. Also the emergence of Nyheim Hines, who made the move to running back in the offseason, and the performance of top receiver Jaylen Samuels have taken some of the pressure off the junior quarterback.
However, Doeren understands the challenge that the Tigers will present on Saturday is one of the largest the Wolfpack have faced this season.
“It all starts with their players — they’ve got great players,” Doeren said. “They’re huge up front and they’re deep. They go 6-5, 6-5, 6-4, 6-5, 6-4, 6-5. All of them are over 300 pounds inside and the rotation at end is 260, 265, 255, 265 — so, it’s big, long bodies which is what you want in your front.
“I’ve known (Clemson defensive coordinator) Brent Venables a long time. We’re both Kansas boys, he’s a great coach and he’ll have his guys ready to play.”
N.C. State on defense
The Wolfpack defense lays claim to one of the most formidable lines in all of college football.
With all four starters along the defensive line returning for the 2017 season, including All-ACC selection Bradley Chubb — who finished last season with 21.5 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks — as well as all three linebackers, the front seven of the Wolfpack defense boasts one of the most dominant units in the nation.
However, this week the challenge will be one of the toughest the Wolfpack have faced all season, as the Tigers bring a healthy (quarterback) Kelly Bryant into Raleigh and a dynamic running game to complement a wide receiver corps that is one of the best in the nation.
“Offensively, they’re fourth in scoring at 32 points per game and very balanced, 200-plus (yards) in both categories (rushing and passing) with a very fast tailback and excellent receiving corps,” Doeren said. “Kelly Bryant’s completing 67 percent of his passes. Great challenge and a game that our players are excited to play in.”