As a flood of students poured onto the field at Carter-Finley Stadium after N.C. State’s 27-21 victory over Clemson last season, one figure seemed out of place in the mob of students.
Through the ecstasy and youth-fueled rave, an older man, with his son stood in awe at the scene.
“I’ve been coming to games here since 1969, and I’ve never had the chance to rush the field,” the older man beamed.
The glint of their N.C. State class rings caught the stadium lights, holding the luster of the moment within golden block-S on the top of each gold-and-ruby ring.
“But I’ve got to make it to midfield.”
Whether it was the shadows of the still-growing crowd, or the elated fervor of the moment, he couldn’t see that he had already made it there.
There’s something about this game, with its next chapter set to be written in front of a national audience. A constant and unbroken passion bleeding into the unforgiving malice of 60 minutes of ACC football.
2018 saw the Tigers beat 15) N.C. State in their highest-ranked regular-season win before winning their third national title.
The game hasn’t surpassed State-Carolina or Clemson-S.C. in its meaning, but unlike either recently it seems to carry consequence at every flip of the coin.
The Wolfpack came a possession away from doing-in 6) Clemson in 2017 with Ryan Finley at quarterback.
And while it hasn’t been the most evenly played rivalry by result, it has never come short on highlights – and disappointments.
Yes, that means reliving State’s missed 33-yard game-winning field goal in 2016.
For N.C. State the cathartic exorcism of ten years of orange demons washed away the pain of the past, even if only for an evening.
State didn’t complete a magical season after the win though.
Neither the Wolfpack nor the Tigers played for an ACC title last season. N.C. State faltered in road tests at Miami and Wake Forest, while Clemson fell to eventual-league-champion Pittsburgh.
N.C. State was unable to vie for their second 10-win season in school history after a cancelled bowl game while Clemson kept Dabo Swinney’s 11-year streak of 10 or more wins alive.
And then the loss of Zonovan Knight, Ricky Person Jr., and Emeka Emezie have left the Pack with an offense that is at-best serviceable – at worst pedestrian.
But things overall have hurled State into Saturday’s pending moment of destiny.
The Wolfpack used two touchdowns and an onside kick recovery to defeat North Carolina for the first time since Mack Brown was named head coach in Chapel Hill.
This year State avoided disaster doing just enough to escape East Carolina with a 21-20 win. The Pack had been only 1-3 in Greenville prior.
And the most recent in a streak of important home wins was a 27-14 victory over a power-five opponent in Texas Tech.
What awaits the Wolfpack now is the cash-it-all-in moment that this program pleaded for since Dave Doeren assumed his role in 2013.
State has not been featured on College Gameday since 2004 and has only seen the Saturday, primetime ABC light once since – as an under-manned, sacrificial lamb to 3) Clemson in 2019.
Even with each escalating moment for the Wolfpack, the national limelight on Saturday will burn hotter and brighter than anything this school has seen, maybe ever. And there’s no more fitting opponent that needed conquering.
This isn’t “Ponder put it on the ground” Florida State or the many hapless Butch Davis-led UNC teams. The other side doesn’t hold the want-to-be-back East Carolina Pirates or even the slow-mesh, read option Wake Forest Demon Deacons.
It’s number-five Clemson in Death Valley.
It’s the pinnacle of blue-collar, ACC football on full display.
Heck, there’s even a trophy on the line Saturday night.
There is no shortage of consequence either. For now the second time in as many years, the Wolfpack find themselves in the conversation for an ACC championship game berth. A victory would mean an inside track to representing the Atlantic Division.
But for the first time N.C. State has turned the page from the feel-good, maybe-they’ll-do-it team to a high-caliber threat to one of college football’s dynasties.
N.C. State may win the school’s first mutual top-ten matchup.
They may not.
But the wait is over in just mere days now. The Wolfpack will receive every bit of attention and respect it has earned and craved over 10 long years of slow-but-meaningful development.
As the flood of Tigers pour down the hill and into Memorial Stadium on Saturday night, there will be many in awe of the scene.
The many generations of Wolfpack fans will watch on as the coin descends onto the paw logo at midfield.
No longer clouded by the toil and disappointment of seasons past or lost in the magnitude of the moment, N.C. State has made it here.