Those three inches were the amount wide receiver Lamart Barrett's right foot landed out of bounds near the Clemson end zone as he hauled in what appeared to be a game-winning 38-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Daniel Evans with 15 seconds left. However, being close does not count when it comes to wins and losses in college football and Barrett's foot was ruled correctly out of bounds as the Tigers escaped with a 20-14 victory in front of 81,000 at Clemson's Death Valley.
It was the fifth straight and the sixth game this season the Wolfpack have lost by eight points or less.
"You have to look the truth in the eye and you have to say that's the truth," N.C. State coach Chuck Amato said. "That's the truth. But you know what? We have to find a way.
"We have to find a way. The other teams are so close to losing and so close to winning, but they have all won in this streak."
Trailing by six points, Evans rolled to his right where he spotted Barrett sneaking past the Clemson secondary. Evans pass appeared to be right where it needed to be as he threw into the end zone. Barrett out jumped Clemson safety Chris Clemmons for the ball, but as he went to land his right foot came down out of bounds, and with it the Wolfpack's seventh loss in 10 games.
"I saw that he had got behind the guy and I guess I could have put the ball a couple of feet in front of him," Evans said. "It would have made it easier on him, but I wasn't able to do it.
"I was kind of falling away from the throw."
N.C. State (3-7, 2-5 ACC) had two more chances to get the ball into the end zone after the incompletion to Barrett. Evans first hit John Dunlap for an 8-yard gain to move the ball to the 30, but on fourth down, Clemson freshman defensive end Ricky Sapp pressured Evans to throw the ball to his lineman, instead of getting the ball downfield, to end the game.
Evans said the loss doesn't hurt anymore than the previous five, but it hurts because it means the ‘Packs season will end on Nov. 25 against East Carolina. N.C. State needed to beat Clemson, then North Carolina and East Carolina in order to just qualify for a bowl game. Now, they can just look forward to playing their rival – the Tar Heels next week – and start preparing for next season.
"It's frustrating, especially at five weeks in a row, but let's move on," the redshirt sophomore said. "We have had five of them (losses) in a row and it comes to a point where moral victories don't do a whole lot for you.
"It stinks to lose, and especially the way we have in the last five weeks. I don't think anyone is dejected or anything. Everyone still feels like we have a lot of football to play and to play a few more weeks with these guys, it will be fun."
It was a fun day for sophomore running back Tony Baker. He had a career afternoon, chopping up the Clemson defense, which ranked 11th nationally in run defense, for 174 yards and a touchdown.
"He is a good back," Clemson coach Tommy Bowden said. "He runs a lot like ours and he is the same kind of quality back that will do that to a lot of people."
Baker said he would trade all of those yards to get a win.
"It was basically little things, little details and little mistakes," he said. "I think we left it all out on the field, but we have to correct those little things.
"The ball just didn't bounce our way."
Trailing 7-0 near the end of the first half, the Wolfpack engineered their best drive of the afternoon following a Clemson touchdown. Behind Bakers running, the ‘Pack marched 67 yards to get the ball down to the Clemson one. On three consecutive plays, the Tigers (8-3, 5-3) kept the Wolfpack out of the end zone for what appeared to be a goal line stand.
However on the fourth down play, Clemson defensive end Phillip Merling jumped offsides and NC State was given a fifth opportunity to pound the ball in the end zone. But Evans' quarterback sneak from the one-foot line was stopped for no gain by Merling on the next play and the Wolfpack left a 13-play drive with no points with 2:34 left in the second quarter.
"I guess you can say we wanted it more than they did," Clemson defensive end Gaines Adams said. "When you get down there, it comes down to who wants it more and we did."
Clemson took a 7-0 lead when running back C.J. Spiller took a toss sweep to the right on third-and-one from his own 48, made two people miss, and scooted 52-yards down the right sideline with 8:45 to play. Spiller finished the day, like Baker, with a career-high 157 yards on 18 carries. Clemson's Jacoby Ford opened the second half with a 71-yard kickoff return to the ‘Pack 14, where two plays later quarterback Will Proctor tossed a 9-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Grisham for a 14-0 lead.
But N.C. State, like they have all season, rallied to tie the game up before the third quarter came to a close. First Baker went in from a yard out with 8:19 left in the quarter, before defensive end Willie Young made a tremendous play when he intercepted a Clemson bubble-screen pass and returned it 34 yards for a touchdown.
In a period of 54 seconds, the ‘Pack went from two touchdowns down, to tying the game at 14.
"That was just a great play on his part," Proctor said of Young's interception.
Clemson responded with a Jad Dean 26-yard field goal to take a 17-14 lead. After both teams trade punts, Adams' tip of a Evans pass with 2:56 to play, setup a Nick Watkins interception, which the Tigers later turned into three more points with a 31-yard Dean field goal with 1:10 remaining. That in turn setup the ‘Pack for another heartbreaking loss.
"It is frustrating, but none more than the others, especially the way the games have been played," Amato said. "I'm tired of using timeouts at the end of the game and trying to get a chance.
"You almost had that chance again. It was frustrating."