Morris: Clemson win over N.C. State more important than style points

rmorris@ thestate.comSeptember 20, 2013 


Clemson tight end Sam Cooper celebrates his 11-yard touchdown reception during the first half against N.C. State on Thursday.


— CLEMSON’S methodical demolition of North Carolina State on Thursday night at Carter-Finley Stadium had nothing to do with gaining style points on a national TV stage.

The Tigers, instead, needed only to exorcise demons against an opponent with a history of destroying the dreams of nationally ranked opponents.

This was a game Clemson should have won. The Tigers were heavily favored in the ACC opener against an N.C. State team playing with a backup quarterback in the first season of a rebuilding job under coach Dave Doeren.

It was precisely the kind of game Clemson teams have been known to lose in the past. Not this time. The Tigers might finally be shedding the unwanted, yet well-earned, label of underachieving against underdogs.

“This was a tough, hard-fought win and it was great to come up here and get the win,” coach Dabo Swinney said.

Pretty it was not. Effective it was. In every sense of the word, the win was workmanlike, from quarterback Tajh Boyd’s solid, but hardly spectacular performance, to the defense’s steady but hardly sterling showing.

Boyd came nowhere close to matching his eight-touchdown day — five passing and three rushing — of a season ago against N.C. State. This time, he tossed three touchdowns while completing 24 of 37 passes for a rather pedestrian 244 yards.

Boyd probably retained his Heisman Trophy-candidate status on a night in which he never seemed to find a rhythm throwing the ball. Two of his best passes essentially sealed the Clemson win, both to wide receiver Martavis Bryant.

Bryant ran a corner route and caught a 30-yard touchdown strike from Boyd late in the third quarter, then the receiver snatched a 15-yard touchdown pass away from N.C. State defender Niles Clark that gave Clemson an insurmountable 26-7 lead early in the fourth quarter.

Clemson’s defense allowed N.C. State 378 yards that included a seven-play, 92-yard touchdown drive in the first half and an eye-opening 23-play, 84-yard drive late in the game.

When the defense needed to make plays, it did, evidence being that the Wolfpack converted three of 16 third-down situations. No one played bigger for the Clemson defense than end Vic Beasley, who got to the N.C. State quarterback for three sacks.

“I can’t say enough about our defense,” Swinney said. “Offense has gotten a lot of the headlines, but I love winning on defense. I’m so proud of those guys. They played great all night.”

The defense, and just enough offense, left Clemson unbeaten in three games and probably will enable the Tigers to keep their No. 3 national ranking. Considering Clemson’s recent history, the Tigers likely enjoyed a happy return ride home.

Under Swinney’s predecessor, Tommy Bowden, Clemson managed to lose what seemed like a game a season to an underdog, outmanned opponent.

The Tigers were 8-0 and ranked fifth nationally in 2000 when unranked Georgia Tech provided the stunner. A season later, Clemson was ranked 19th when it lost to unranked Virginia, and carried a No. 13 ranking when it lost to unranked North Carolina.

Clemson lost to lowly Duke in 2004, to Wake Forest in 2005, to unranked Virginia Tech when the Tigers were No. 10 in 2006, and finally to unranked Georgia Tech when the Tigers were No. 13 in 2007.

Swinney took over during the 2008 season after Bowden’s Tigers lost at Wake Forest. For the most part, Swinney’s teams have avoided the upset bug with the exception of the 2011 season. That’s when the No. 6 Tigers lost to unranked Georgia Tech and fell to N.C. State when they were ranked seventh nationally.

To further make Thursday’s game seem like a set up for disaster, Clemson had to deal with playing on the road for the first time this season in a Wolfpack home that has become a den for upsets over the past few seasons.

N.C. State might not have been a contender for the ACC championship over those years, but it specialized in knocking ranked teams out of title contention.

On each occasion, N.C. State entered the game unranked and defeated a top-10 opponent. The stunners began in 2005 when N.C. State defeated No. 9 Florida State, continued in 2011 when the Wolfpack turned back No. 7 Clemson, and happened again a season ago with the upset of No. 3 Florida State.

When N.C. State running back Shadrach Thornton raced 21 yards for a touchdown to give the Wolfpack a 7-6 lead early in the second quarter, Clemson fans everywhere must have been thinking, “here we go again.”

Instead, Boyd connected with tight end Sam Cooper late in the first half to give Clemson the lead for keeps. Then the Tigers went about continuing to shed that ugly label of losing games they should win, no matter that this one came virtually void of style points.