NC State has closed gap on Tigers, but can Wolfpack finally get a W?

Pollack expecting 'awesome showdown' in Death Valley (0:41)

David Pollack previews NC State's visit to Clemson Saturday at 3:30pm ET on ESPN. (0:41)

For a long time, Dave Doeren kept a screenshot on his phone from his first NC State-Clemson game, a raucous Thursday night six years ago.

Nobody gave NC State much of a chance that night against the No. 3 Tigers, who went in as 13-point favorites. Yet midway through the third quarter, the Wolfpack were very much in it, scrappy underdogs ready to pull off the upset only three games into Doeren's head-coaching tenure at NC State.

Then the game-changing play happened.

NC State receiver Bryan Underwood went 83 yards down the right sideline into the end zone. The fans at Carter-Finley Stadium erupted, their surprise and joy indistinguishable in the uproar. But a whistle had blown the play dead at the Clemson 47, where officials thought Underwood had stepped out of bounds. The play was not reviewable.

Without the whistle, who knows what would've happened? Maybe officials would have ruled Underwood stayed in bounds and the score would've tied the game at 13. Instead, Clemson went on to a 26-14 win.

If Doeren needed any reminder at all about how close the Wolfpack came -- or an idea of the potential of what could come during his tenure -- all he needed to do was flip to the screenshot in his phone, a freeze frame of Underwood's seemingly in bounds cleat.

In the six years since that play, Doeren and NC State have done more than toe the line against Clemson, transforming what had become a mostly polite annual game known as the Textile Bowl into the nouveau grudge-match rivalry in the ACC, complete with insults, towel-stealing, inappropriate shoves, a sucker punch and, yes, cheating accusations.

In the process, the Wolfpack have come agonizingly close to beating Clemson. But their best efforts have fallen short.

Will their game Saturday be any different?

Clemson remains the only Atlantic Division team Doeren has yet to beat. The stakes are even higher this year, as both teams enter the game ranked and as the last two undefeated teams in the ACC. And it's not just Atlantic Division and ACC championship game hopes on the line; College Football Playoff hopes are at stake as well.

Mix in the way games between the two sides have gone recently and the war of words between them and the drama is more intense than an episode of "Game of Thrones."

"There's always an edge to you when you've been close, close, close and just haven't finished," Doeren said. "It's something as a coach, something as a player, something as a program that's important to you to be able to take those steps forward."

When Doeren arrived in 2013, he went through the history books at NC State to get more acquainted with the big games on the schedule. North Carolina went without saying. But he soon learned about Clemson-NC State. The two schools first played in 1899, and in 1981 their annual game became known as the Textile Bowl, a nod to the industry that has been instrumental at both universities and their respective states.

Despite the named game and trophy that goes with it, the rivalry lost steam in the years since NC State last won an ACC title in 1979. Clemson had gained the upper hand, and that has only continued under Dabo Swinney. Doeren understood that for NC State to not only be competitive, but championship-worthy in the ACC, he needed to make this game a really big deal.

But how it has become a really big deal has far less to do with the on-field results (Clemson has won six straight and 13 of the past 14 meetings) and more to do with controversial comments and moments.

  • In 2013, the year of the Underwood play, Clemson offensive tackle Isaiah Battle was ejected for punching NC State defensive back Jarvis Byrd.

  • In 2015, an NC State staff member appeared to take a swing at Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson on the Wolfpack sideline.

  • In 2016, Kyle Bambard missed a 33-yard field goal in regulation that would have won the game for NC State. Instead, Clemson rallied for a 24-17 win. A few days later, Doeren seemed to imply on his coaches' show that it was part of the NC State game plan to knock Clemson running back Wayne Gallman out of the game. Gallman sustained a concussion early on and called the hit that injured him "dirty." Doeren was forced to clarify his remarks.

  • In 2017, Clemson rallied for a 38-31 win. An illegal formation penalty on NC State negated a completion and first-and-goal as the Wolfpack were driving late for the tying score. During the game, NC State defensive end Bradley Chubb repeatedly took Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant's hand towels from his hip. Swinney offered his own rebuke of Chubb in his response: "We had a crisis -- a dire need of towels. We were trying to get one of them drones to come in and drop some towels on the sideline, and it just didn't work out."

    After the game, Doeren accused Clemson of using a laptop on the sideline in violation of NCAA rules and asked the ACC to investigate. A student assigned to handle social media was using the laptop and the ACC found no wrongdoing.

    Doeren says he has no regrets over how he handled the situation, though he did not want to delve much deeper than that. Over the summer, however, Doeren said, "If I don't stand up for our program, who the hell's going to? So I asked the officials, can we do anything about this? They said no. So we called the ACC office, and they said they'd look into it next week. I thought, that's not good enough, so I'm going to say something. Every game I get asked every time the officials screw up, what do you think of the officials? I can't comment on that. But I will comment on this because the officials can't do anything on this.

    "Some people say I was taking a shot at Dabo. I was not. I was taking a shot at the guys who had the laptop on the sideline. I'm not oblivious to the fact that things happen during a game that, as a head coach, you don't see. There's friggin' 60 people down there with credentials on. They've got so many people. That's the SEC model. They've got it."

    During his weekly news conference this week, Swinney addressed what happened last year, saying, "I didn't want a laptop investigation. I did want an investigation into the towel stealing. Dave sent me some Adidas towels. I was like, 'Hey, these aren't even our towels.' I guess Bradley Chubb has them hanging up somewhere in his apartment in Denver.

    "This is a competitive game for sure. We have had some crazy stuff, though."

So how do the players view this game?

"I don't think it's a rivalry game," Clemson defensive end Clelin Ferrell said. "The fans make it out to be. I don't pay attention to that stuff like that. But I definitely see why people put that on it because the games we played the last three years have been so competitive, anytime you have things like that, where you have people who are like, 'We got cheated,' or 'They blew that game,' or whatever, it's going to be some tension rising between the two fan bases. But as a player, I don't really see it as a rivalry. I see it as we're about to play a really, really good team and we've got to play well in order to win."

The intensity in the matchup has grown as NC State has grown as a program. Last season, the Wolfpack posted their best ACC record since 1994. After they lost several high-profile players to the NFL draft, including Chubb, some thought NC State might take a step back.

But with Ryan Finley and his three top receivers returning, NC State is 5-0 and trending upward. But to keep climbing, everyone in Raleigh knows the Wolfpack have to beat the Tigers. And to beat the Tigers, they have to finish games -- a message Doeren has preached since last season ended.

"Looking back at the past five games, you can see we truly have gotten better each week, and that's where your confidence starts, to see the progress," NC State center Garrett Bradbury said. "We truly believe if we execute what we're doing, it doesn't really matter who's in front of us."