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History of the matchup: NC State vs. Notre Dame

| Wednesday, September 6, 2023

Sarah Olson | The Observer
Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush dodges a defender during Notre Dame’s 35-14 win over NC State in 2017 at Notre Dame Stadium.

Notre Dame’s long and illustrious football history may reach from coast to coast, but it does not have deep roots in Raleigh, North Carolina. The Fighting Irish and North Carolina State Wolfpack have only met three times in their respective histories, and Notre Dame fans likely remember two of those games for all the wrong reasons.

2003 Gator Bowl: Wolfpack 28, Irish 6

Let’s take a trip back in time to the fall of 2002: “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” is the most recent international box office hit, a 16 year-old kid named Lionel Messi just made his professional debut for FC Barcelona and optimism is high in South Bend, Indiana, for the start of the Tyrone Willingham era of Notre Dame football. 

After a 5-6 2001 season ended the Bob Davie’s tenure, the Irish opened the 2002 season ranked No. 21 in the country. They won their first game, then their second. In their third game, they upset No. 7 Michigan 25-23 at home. After a dramatic, late-game 60-yard touchdown reception by Arnaz Battle gave the Irish a fourth consecutive win to open the year, fans were drawing conclusions. “RETURN TO GLORY: NOTRE DAME,” touted the cover of the following week’s Sports Illustrated. Following headlines read, “What a difference a coach makes,” and declared Willingham “the savior of South Bend.”

And amidst the hype, the Irish kept winning. They rose as high as No. 4 in the polls and boasted an undefeated 8-0 record heading into an early-November home matchup with unranked Boston College. But a 14-7 loss to the Eagles, followed by a 44-13 demolition two weeks later at rival USC, dropped the Irish to No. 11 and into the Gator Bowl against the No. 17 Wolfpack. 

Led by quarterback Phillip Rivers, NC State was in the midst of their best season in program history. The Wolfpack won their first nine games, but had lost three of their final four. They were determined for a feel-good victory to end their record-setting season. On their way to it, the Wolfpack exposed Willingham’s once-hyped Irish. Rivers threw for 228 yards and two touchdowns, and NC State put up 21 second quarter points en route to a convincing 28-6 victory. So began another volatile chapter in Notre Dame’s history: Willingham would only last two more seasons as head coach of the Irish, finishing 11-12 in his final 23 games at Notre Dame.

Raleigh, 2016: Wolfpack 10, Irish 3

Only three words are necessary to encapsulate this contest: the hurricane game. Played during the driving wind and rain of Hurricane Matthew, NC State’s 10-3 victory is a particularly sour memory that stands out from a disappointing 4-8 season. Players waited through a 30-minute lightning delay at halftime, and there was a period when the game itself was in doubt.

But the game was played. And for a chaos loving college football fan, it was a must-watch. Large swaths of the grass playing surface at Carter-Finley Stadium were submerged in puddles due to the poor conditions. The teams combined for five turnovers, 10 fumbles, and only a field goal apiece after three quarters of play. The game was a classic, and in the most horrible way imaginable.

The ending fit the bill, too. After another failed drive, Notre Dame set up to punt from their own 24-yard line. With 12:43 remaining in the game, both teams were yet to score a touchdown. The snap was good, and Irish punter Tyler Newsome got the kick off well enough — but the Wolfpack blocked it. NC State’s Dexter Wright scooped up the ball and trotted into the end zone for the game’s only touchdown. 

Things did not get much better for Notre Dame after the gut-punch in Raleigh. The Irish won just two of their last six games to finish the worst season of the Brian Kelly era at Notre Dame. 

South Bend, 2017: Irish 35, Wolfpack 14 

This may be remembered as the most normal game of the three, and it still had its twists. Ranked No. 14 and No. 9, respectively, the Wolfpack and Irish both came into the game 6-1. NC State had handily beaten unranked Pitt the week prior, while Notre Dame had upset No. 11 USC at home with a 49-14 beatdown. NC State boasted the nation’s 6th best rushing defense, while the Irish were 12th in the nation in scoring defense. Notre Dame was a far cry from last season’s miserable “hurricane game” loss and 4-8 season. All signs pointed toward a close, low-scoring game.

Those signs were wrong. NC State got on the board early, blocking a Notre Dame punt for a touchdown less than five minutes into the game. The start was uncannily similar to the way the last game between the two sides ended. The Irish were not intimidated by the unhappy resemblance, though. Rather, Notre Dame took control. The game quickly turned into an Irish romp, especially on the ground — an area that was supposed to be NC State’s calling card. Star running back Josh Adams rushed for 202 yards on 27 carries and a score, all part of 318 total yards on the ground for Notre Dame. Quarterback Brandon Wimbush threw for two touchdowns, and Julian Love intercepted NC State’s Ryan Finley and returned it for a score. 

It was Notre Dame’s 6th straight win by 20 or more points, and set the Irish up as a College Football Playoff contender. Notre Dame ranked No. 3 in the year’s first CFP rankings, which came out after the victory. Losses to Miami and Stanford on the road squashed those dreams later in 2017, but the Irish would make their College Football Playoff debut the following season.

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