Truly, sometimes it is better to be lucky than good.
There are plenty of reasons why Clemson’s season was about to careen off the tracks Saturday, reasons Dabo Swinney must address in between now and the Oct. 29 game at Florida State, because he can’t coach the good fortune bestowed on the Tigers.
Swinney, frequently and with fervent conviction, emphasizes the difficulty of winning a college football game, let alone sweeping the schedule. Consider Saturday’s 24-17 overtime victory, Exhibit A.
The nation’s third-ranked team and still among the favorites for the College Football Playoff, Clemson didn’t look the part.
Before coming to Death Valley, N.C. State played four cupcakes and withstood God’s wrath to beat Notre Dame in a monsoon. Few anticipated more than token resistance from the 21-point underdog. Instead the Wolfpack backed Clemson to the wall and nearly authored the season’s biggest upset.
Ryan Finley was characterized by the local wags as a “game manager,” a backhanded compliment for a quarterback who hadn’t thrown an interception in his first 128 passes. Clemson would show him, they opined, and in some respects it did. Finley was sacked four times and picked twice including Marcus Edmond’s in overtime to preserve the perfect season for the second time in three games.
Yet Finley maintained his composure and guided his team to a fourth-quarter touchdown to tie the game, and another 55 yards to set up a potential game-winning field goal.
As kicker Kyle Bambard prepared to approach the ball from the 23-yard line with two seconds to play, virtually everybody in orange figured they were toast. Eerie memories bubbled in the minds of longtime fans who remembered that 1986 game when N.C. State interrupted Clemson’s 6-0 start to the season with a two-point win.
This was a game Bambard will carry for a while. His only miss this season was in the rain against Notre Dame. He tried four field goals Saturday. The first hit an upright, the second was good from 28 yards and the third was blocked by versatile defensive lineman Christian Wilkins. When Bambard pushed his fourth attempt to the right, Swinney bent over and slapped the ground in relief.
“There’s something to be said for finding a way to win,” Swinney said. “It counts the same as if we’d won by three touchdowns.”
Clemson bettors found no solace, and it doesn’t feel the same when your team commits four turnovers including two fumbles in the opponents red zone, give up the ball on downs at the 1-yard line and throw a pick six to open the second half.
Swinney admitted, “you want to pull your hair out.”
Losing all-conference running back Wayne Gallman in the first quarter was critical for a team that insists on a run-first philosophy. Without him, Clemson averaged 2.8 yards on 37 attempts, including the 10-yard run with a punt fake by Wilkins which matched Clemson’s longest of the game.
Swinney also pointed out to Clemson’s 10 turnovers in its past two home games. Deshaun Watson already has eight interceptions this season, among the highest totals in the nation. “If we can take those turnovers away we can get control of the game.”
When at its best, the Clemson offense moves at a sprinter’s pace with Watson flinging the ball to that bounty of skill at receiver and tight end. The play selection tends to start conservatively, which may account for some of Clemson’s slow starts this season.
“They certainly had opportunities to win the game,” Swinney said of the Wolfpack. “We overcame it.”
With a little luck.