Snatching a victory from the 'heels just as their fans were warming up the "Over-rated" chant, and then rubbing it in their faces as the nation's top-rated QB just kept handing the ball off, and the 'heel's most scripted play of the afternoon appeared to be the Fearsome Post-Game Logo Defense. A scare from Duke, and then a trip down to Clemson to deliver Tommy and the Tigers a well-deserved thrashing, then a weekend of watching NC State football do something that skeptics of Amato and the Pack had dismissed as impossible just two short years ago: the Pack cracked the top 10 in both polls and the BCS. The Pack was 9-0 for the first time in school history.
Then, as you know, the wheels fell off. One loss. Then two. A third. All were lost in the final quarter. The Pack's most potent weapon on paper, its offense, led by (erstwhile) Heisman candidates Rivers and McLendon, became a paper tiger. The defense played admirably -- some of its best football to date -- yet gave up key scores in closing minutes. The skeptics -- some now 3-7 on their predictions on the season (not counting the Div. 1AA games)-- began peeking out of the woodwork, waiting for a chance to say "I tol' ya so."
Worse, it appeared that all the gains made during the nine wins were lost with those successive losses. A BCS bid was completely erased, of course. The ACC title hopes were gone, too. It appeared that the Pack might even be headed -- improbably -- for another 4-4 year in the conference.
We remember how it was last year -- the Pack struggled early, came on strong in the end, but too late -- and Chuck Amato and Lee Fowler went begging for a Florida bowl (bully for them, they got it). The scenarios at season's end 2001 weren't pretty, however -- it was possible the Pack could have stayed home after finishing the season upsetting one top-10 team on the road (an ACC first, at Florida State) and nearly knocking off another one the very next week (that being Maryland). They were tense times in the Wolfpack community. And they appeared to be lurking around the corner again, menacing in the November chill, as conference unbeaten Florida State -- no doubt with revenge on their minds -- loomed next.
Three games. Three fourth-quarter leads lost. Too many mistakes. Some were beginning to wonder if a 10th Wolfpack win was even allowed by the football gods. Maybe it violated some cosmic football bylaw. Was NC State cursed?
Such are the wonderings of fans with no ability to influence the outcome of the game other than to show up and cheer -- or not. Only the coaches and players can tell what demons of doubt and recrimination they faced. Whatever the struggles, when the Seminoles came to town, the fans filled the stadium and cheered like mad. And the team flat-out dominated the 'noles in every phase of the game.
The win was a statement. That 9-0 start wasn't a fluke. If anything, the three losses looked like flukes, a stretch of ill fortune between two defensive shutouts of Clemson and Florida State.
Of course, there's no such thing as three flukes, and history will record three L's on the 2002 schedule. And like the 1967 team, whose 8-0 start the 2002 team eclipsed, the mention of their accomplishments will always be tinged with "If only..."
Nevertheless, the victory over Florida State did surprisingly much to remove the sting of those three losses -- more so than even the optimistic Pack fans before the game would have predicted. Certainly that has a great deal to do with how the Pack won the game.
It also removed the sting of doubt from the pollsters and national observers. The Pack finishes its season ranked higher than all the other ACC members, even though they didn't finish first in the standings. And word came today from the Gator Bowl that they'd be pleased if the Pack would drop by for a visit this holiday season.
In the end, Wolfpack fans will look back on this season now as a wonderful ride. There were a few bumps in the road late, but what a finish! Some dreams didn't come true -- no unbeaten season, no ACC title, no BCS bowl or shot at the national title. But some milestones were passed -- first time 9-0; the first win no. 10; cracking the AP, coaches' poll and BCS top 10 rankings; first time "national championship" and "NC State football" were mentioned in places like ESPN. Progress is being made in Raleigh by huge strides.
The final great thing that emerged from this season, thanks not only to wins nos. 1-9 but also, in the face of adversity, win no. 10, is hope. The Wolfpack got a taste of "what Chuck's been cookin'" -- big-time, top 10 football -- and we loved it. Next year holds the promise of more.
beowolf (firstname.lastname@example.org) wants to thank Coach Amato, his staff, and his players for providing Pack fans with a memorable season.
Black November is over before Thanksgiving
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