The message at NC State this week has been simple. So simple, that Dave Doeren could have just jotted down a few numbers on a chalkboard for his players to see:
2012: W, 17-16
2011: W, 37-13
2010: W, 28-24
That is all the evidence anybody needs to understand how NC State has come to be known as the resident ACC giant-destroyers. Doeren was not even a part of those victories, but he knows about them now as the man in charge.
The Wolfpack took down No. 3 Florida State last year; embarrassed then-No. 7 Clemson the last time the Tigers visited in 2011; and beat No. 16 Florida State in 2010. All of them home games at Carter-Finley Stadium. Indeed, the last time NC State lost to both teams in the same season was in 2009, when Doeren was still Wisconsin defensive coordinator.
To put its reputation further into perspective, NC State has beaten at least one ranked team every year since 2005. The Wolfpack (2-0) are aiming for another upset tonight when No. 3 Clemson (2-0) comes to town.
“I think the big difference when we play against Clemson and Florida State, those are the teams that people circle on the calendar because they know those are big games that you have to play your best to win,” said NC State defensive end Darryl Cato-Bishop, who has played in all three upsets. “Each and every game you need to play your best to win, but those are the games you get real hyped up to play.”
Not as if Clemson coach Dabo Swinney needs any reminders.
“We went up there last time and got our tails handed to us,” Swinney recently recalled. “We don't have to look any further than ourselves. It's a very difficult place to play. Our last experience up there was not good. We played one of our worst games of the year that year, and we won the league. It was a very disappointing night. We'll have to play much, much better to have a chance to win this game.”
Some of these recent big wins stunned the nation. But perhaps most stunning was NC State’s inability to capitalize on such huge momentum. Yes, NC State has had the ability to beat Top 25 teams, but it also has lost to inferior competition. Virginia last year. Boston College in 2011. East Carolina in 2010. The inconsistency over the course of each season is one reason why Tom O’Brien was fired at the end of 2012.
Cato-Bishop says Doeren has done a good job of making sure to emphasize each and every game on the schedule, though NC State nearly slipped up last time out against FCS Richmond, barely squeaking out a win. "Coach is getting the young guys in the frame of mind that things just don’t happen," he said. "You have to keep working and playing hard for those things to happen."
It is hard to ignore the fact that this one is bigger than most. For Doeren, this is his first taste of a big-game atmosphere at Carter-Finley. Interestingly enough, Doeren has never lost a home game as a head coach, going back to his first job at Northern Illinois. He has not lost a home game since 2009, as an assistant.
Wolfpack coaches and players know they will have a raucous home environment, and they have to capitalize with early momentum in the game. The last time it beat Clemson, NC State scored 27 points in the second quarter and never let the Tigers get back in. The key in the game was the way the Wolfpack pressured quarterback Tajh Boyd, sacking him six times. They also forced four turnovers.
For Clemson, the pressure will be turned up to full throttle. The Tigers know all eyes will be watching to see whether they have truly outgrown the perception that they have a tendency to struggle against teams they should beat.
With a No. 3 ranking, Heisman candidate Boyd and Sammy Watkins, Clemson is the clear favorite. But Clemson was the clear favorite in 2011, too, against a 5-5 NC State team trying to salvage its season.
“I don’t really have to look at the history,” Doeren said. “I just tell [my players], ‘Hey look guys, a lot of people are saying you don’t have a chance in this game. But everyone in here that has played here knows that you do, because of what you did last year when Florida State came in here and the year before with Clemson.’ Those games aren’t going to win this game for us, but at least there are guys in the room that played in those games that remember. “I think it is a source of pride.”
Reputation building, too.