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Three NC State defenders converged on Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence as he scrambled for an eight-yard gain midway through the first period Saturday (pictured above).

When the play was over, Lawrence popped right up and headed back to his huddle while all three of the Wolfpack players -- end James Smith-Williams, nose tackle Alim McNeill and linebacker Payton Wilson -- remained down on the field in need of medical attention.

It summed up State's catastrophic injury situation in one painful play.

“I just looked up to the sky and said ‘come on’ on that one,'" Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren said Monday as he recalled his reaction to the carnage. "I just went by each pile and quickly two of them were like ‘I’m good’ so that was okay. Payton’s was the one that we were the most concerned about because the other two guys gave me the thumbs up pretty fast. It’s a tough deal.”

Smith-Williams and McNeill were both able to return, but Wilson missed the rest of the game with a shoulder problem.

He became the latest casualty in a season-long epidemic of maladies that began in the opening game and has only gotten worse with each passing week. 

Fourteen players that have contributed to the Wolfpack this season missed Saturday's homecoming game at Carter-Finley Stadium with injuries. Several more went down during the 55-10 loss to the Tigers.

A situation Doeren described a week earlier as "Code Red" got so bad Saturday that State finished the game with three players that hadn't been on the field for a single snap from scrimmage all year -- true freshman Jaylon Scott and walkons Alex Gray and Seth Williams -- at linebacker for the final 20 plays against the defending national champions.

"I don’t know how many different starting lineup combinations we’ve had now, but I don’t know how you can predict consistency when you’re inconsistent in your lineup every week," Doeren said. "That’s the hardest thing. Nobody sits in their office in preseason, obviously it’s ‘if this guy gets hurt, what do we do?’ 

"You don’t go through what we’ve been through and have those answers. You’ve just got to do the best you can with what the trainer tells you each week, and get the guys ready.”

The most frustrating aspect of the Wolfpack's injury woes is that there doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to why it's happened.

"I wish it was all one injury so I could tell you that we’re not doing something right,' Doeren said. "It’s not. It’s a foot here, it’s a shoulder here, it’s a knee here, it’s a concussion here. We’ve had a lot of different things. It’s just, I don’t know, (it's) one of those things that we’re going through right now.”

The good news for State is that senior cornerback Nick McCloud, who hadn't played since Aug. 31 against East Carolina, returned to the lineup Saturday. Linebackers Wilson, Drake Thomas, C.J. Hart and Isaiah Moore are all expected back this week.

But even with their presence on the field, the Wolfpack will be severely shorthanded again Saturday against Louisville.

It will also be young.

Only one other team nationally has played more freshman than State this season. Six first-year players were among the 11 starters on offense for the Clemson game. That's three more than had started a game for Doeren during his six previous seasons with the Wolfpack combined.

Despite all that inexperience, Doeren said doesn't have the luxury of bringing his young players along slowly.

“I don’t think we’re at a point now where patience is what we’re doing," he said. "We are trying everything we can do to win the next game with who we are playing with. I told them in Week 3 or Week 4, if you’re a freshman and you’ve played all the games, you’re not a freshman anymore. 

"It’s just one day at a time. What are they struggling with, how can we make them better? Regardless of their age right now, they’re all football players that need to play better. That’s how we’re approaching it.”

With three games still left to play, and bowl eligibility still on the table for his 4-5 team,  Doeren is doing his best to try and stay positive in the face of all the adversity.

"I believe in karma," the coach said. "I think that if you’re a negative person everyday and you bring negativity to your life, if I bring negativity into that building, then that building has a negative feel. My job is to create an environment where people want to be great. 

"I’ve got to be positive to make that happen. I’ve also got to be truthful. I’ve got to tell them the facts, but I think that if you’re a positive person, you have a positive outlook and you try to find solutions instead of problems, then better things happen. That’s the approach that I’m taking with our guys. 

"There’s a lot of days where I’m picking people up, because not everybody sees things like that. A lot of people like to look at the negativity going on out there. To me, it’s a problem that you can face one way or another. You can attack it or you can run with it, and I like to attack it with the right attitude.”