RALEIGH, N.C. -- Coach Dave Doeren admits he's superstitious. When things are going well, he'll wear the same color shirt or follow the same routine or, as he noted, follow a few other rules that “just don't need to be talked about.”
However, nothing was lucky about the NC State Wolfpack's 39-25 win over the Louisville Cardinals on Thursday. Doeren's Wolfpack sent a message to the rest of the ACC: NC State is for real.
To be sure, bad luck has overwhelmed this program at times, including close losses last year to both Clemson (on a missed chip-shot field goal) and Florida State (on a dropped would-be interception). Even in this year's opener, NC State dominated South Carolina in every statistic except the final score. So, yeah, a little salt over the shoulder might've been necessary to exorcise the demons.
Now, though, NC State looks more than capable of lining up with anyone. The Wolfpack's first nine drives all entered Louisville territory.
"They don't want to be denied what they feel is theirs right now," Doeren said. "They've had the struggle. You have to face your fear. You've got to grow up, to dig deep. Our guys did that."
QB Ryan Finley, who has now thrown 288 straight passes without an interception, the best mark in the nation, carved up Louisville's secondary.
WR Kelvin Harmon went toe-to-toe with one of the league's top cornerbacks, Jaire Alexander, and recorded 133 yards, including one beautiful third-down catch to set up a touchdown.
NC State's defense, led by DE Bradley Chubb, tormented the Louisville offensive line, and while the D hardly corralled QB Lamar Jackson's magic, the Wolfpack still held their own, and LB Germaine Pratt finished things off with a pick-six on a late Jackson heave.
In the end, 24th-ranked NC State notched a second straight win over a ranked opponent, something the program hadn't done since 2010. It was the Wolfpack's first win as a ranked team since 2003. Indeed, a ranked NC State team hadn't beaten another ranked team (Louisville is No. 17) since 2002 -- and hadn't done so at home since 1992. It was a third straight ACC win, also something they hadn't done since 2002.
Talk about exorcising demons.
"We're playing with a chip on our shoulder," Finley said. "Last year was a tough season. When you go through the fire, you come out burned."
None of that is to suggest Doeren couldn't have used a little more positive mojo. NC State flamed out in the red zone too often and watched as Jackson worked his typical magic. It wasn't a performance that will strike fear into the current kings of the ACC, but Clemson should take notice. After all, it was the Tigers' good fortune that saved them against NC State last year. And this, clearly, is a new NC State team.
For Louisville, however, it was more of the same in a season that is torturously unraveling. Jackson was again spectacular, throwing for 354 yards and rushing for 73 more, accounting for three touchdowns. But his team did him no favors, with the secondary struggling, the receivers dropping numerous passes, and the O-line coughing up four sacks and getting flagged for five false starts. Forget the big numbers for Jackson. The loss puts his Heisman hopes on life support, and the image of Pratt scampering into the end zone will be what lingers.
"We threw an interception for a touchdown," Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said, seeming to pin the ultimate failure on Jackson's errant throw. "That was really discouraging to me. If we get in a position to win, we've got to make the plays to go do it."
If this was the end for Jackson's Heisman run, however, it's just the start of an intriguing new storyline in the ACC. Sure, Florida State is down. No, Louisville will not meet expectations. But here's NC State, long forgotten but suddenly relevant.
This wasn't a "we want Clemson" statement game, perhaps. But it was a statement that Clemson's road to another ACC Atlantic title will at least include a speed bump in Raleigh, North Carolina.
"We've got that confidence in ourselves that we're one of the best teams in the country," Chubb said. "When you have that confidence, I feel like nobody can beat us."