With little controversy one could declare the Duke Blue Devils to be a chronically horrible football team. But the Blue Devils have rarely looked horrible against the Pack in recent history. Seriously. For some reason, NC State has played some of its closest and most tense conference games against the undisputed cellar dwellers of the ACC.
In the last ten years, only three games have been decided by more than six points. In fact, in the last five years, only once did State defeat Duke by more than a touchdown. Despite being an unequivocated bad football team, totaling a conference record of 0-24 in the last three years, Duke has nearly always made each game a battle.
The other narrow victories offered opportunities for Pack heroics that fans would have just as well preferred not to see. The 2000 35-31 win in Duke's magical winless season was delivered by a freshman Philip Rivers driving the Pack 80 yards before running it in with 32 seconds left. The year before, in Carl Franks' first season, the Pack had to go to overtime to secure a 31-24 victory, which also ended with a seven-yard run by State's quarterback, this time senior Jamie Barnette. The season before that, Duke fought back from a 24-7 deficit only to lose 27-24.
Granted, Duke hasn't managed to beat the Pack since 1993 - which is all the more astounding considering how tight the games have been. Maybe the close games with Duke were symptomatic of Pack teams' tendencies to underperform against apparently lesser opponents, a criticism that has persisted even into the Amato era. However, the Carl Franks-led Blue Devils were amazingly reliable losers of close games. In Duke's 2002 2-10 gem of a season, Duke lost five games by five points or fewer. This could indicate that they actually overachieved enough to at least compete with better teams. Or, it could mean that the recently deposed Carl Franks was so terrible a coach that he could rarely direct a victory in any game that required two-minute drill strategizing. Duke athletic director Joe Aleva seemed to believe the latter.
So basically, fans have no idea what to expect in Durham Saturday. Well, fans probably expect State to handily lay the smack down on Duke, but they shouldn't. Duke may not have many blue chip recruits in its lineup, but it does have a giant inflated helmet, perhaps emblematic of where things tend to get inflated on that campus. But State fans' own expectations have proven to be unrealistically inflated. The depth of talent that was perceived to be such a strength of State's team has been tested by an unprecedented level of injuries to both the offense and defense. The Pack didn't look too good in losses to Wake Forest and Georgia Tech, nor in a 27-24 win against UConn and a 17-15 win against Clemson. But it did win, and since the Georgia Tech debacle the Pack has fought through inconsistent defense and a decimated ground game to pull out the close victories - the kind of games Duke has been losing with regularity.
Yet a Duke team freed of the failure that was Carl Franks is certainly capable enough of providing another test for the Pack. And the matchup comes at a time when State must again resist the temptation to look ahead, this time to big games against UVa, Florida State and Maryland that await. Duke is dangerous, and has nothing to lose. State on the other hand, has everything to lose, thanks to heavy hype and expectations. A loss to Duke would not do. If the Pack has half the heart it takes to overcome the adversity of injuries and the transformation of hype to scrutiny, it should take care of Duke without too much excitement.
State seemed to turn a corner against Clemson last week, holding the Tigers to the lowest point total of any Pack opponent this season, despite losing defensive starters Lamont Reid and Renaldo Moses. If the defense can continue to perform as effectively as it did last week, the Pack could very well find the ability to run the table. It wouldn't be easy, but it won't even be possible if State can't first get by a school that would like its opponents to think its already looking forward to basketball season.