If winning was enough, Clemson fulfilled the mission Thursday night.
Splitters of hair might argue it was not worthy of the No. 3 team in the nation and a quarterback prominent in Heisman Trophy conversations, but a 26-14 win Thursday night at N.C. State protected Clemson’s perfect season after three games.
While there were flashes of clarity, until the fourth quarter Clemson was generally inefficient, absent of offensive rhythm for stretches and vulnerable defensively to chunk plays.
“I’m exhausted. I felt like I played every snap,” coach Dabo Swinney said. “Every single play was a battle for four quarters.”
Instead of a smooth ride, the offense often sputtered and lurched as if there was water in the fuel. Of Clemson’s 415 yards, quarterback Tajh Boyd completed 24 of 37 passes for 244 and three touchdowns — two to Martavis Bryant — but often seemed impatient trying to stretch the field as the N.C. State pass rush seemed to blur his judgment.
N.C. State (2-1, 0-1 ACC) sacked him twice in the first half and forced him to hasty decisions, which led to an eerie reminder of Clemson’s implosion here at Carter-Finley Stadium two years ago.
Playing without senior left tackle Rob Crisp, the Wolfpack managed to probe the Clemson secondary enough to make it uncomfortable for a team favored by two touchdowns at kickoff, throwing a variety of funky formations.
“They did some things we hadn’t seen anywhere,” Swinney said.
Touchdown drives of 92 and 84 yards accounted for nearly half of N.C. State’s 378 yards. Wearing all red, the Wolfpack were not embarrassed. Quarterback Pete Thomas, in his second start since transferring from Colorado State, completed 20 of 36 for 213 yards and scored the Wolfpack’s second touchdown in the fourth quarter.
In the final analysis, Clemson did not commit a turnover, N.C. State had two. When the clock became an ally in the fourth quarter, Clemson embraced it to run its record at packed Carter-Finley Stadium to 14-9.
Clemson rushed for 170 yards and converted 10 of 19 on third down. N.C. State rushed for 165, was three of 16 on third down but four of five on fourth down.
Sammy Watkins finished with 10 catches for 96 yards and Bryant had six for 73 as Clemson began life after Charone Peake at receiver.
Rod McDowell rushed for 68 yards on 14 carries. Linebacker Stephone Anthony was credited with 14 tackles, Spencer Shuey 11 and a fumble recovery, and Vic Beasley with three of Clemson’s five sacks.
The outcome was clearly contestable midway through the third quarter with State trailing by six points. The Wolfpack missed an opportunity to seize momentum when Bryan Underwood stepped out of bounds on what appeared to be an 83-yard touchdown sprint.
“There was a lot of it we had not seen on tape,” Swinney said. “We were fortunate in a couple situations.”
When linebacker Spencer Shuey recovered a fumble at the N.C. State 48, Clemson capitalized. Boyd hit Bryant for 30 yards with 5:25 to play in the third quarter, capping a five play 48 yard drive that ran 1:27 off the clock. “That was the spark we needed in the second half ,” Swinney said of the fumble.
Bryant and Boyd connected quickly on Clemson’s next possession, 15 yards at 11:27 to play. It was Boyd’s 79th career touchdown pass, tying him with Chris Weinke of Florida State for No. 2 in the ACC.
Somehow, Clemson milked a 6-0 lead with two early field goals as Chandler Catanzaro kicked two field goals en route to becoming Clemson’s career scoring leader.
Memories of Clemson’s painful visit here two years ago flashed when the offense stalled during the first three possessions.
Passes to Watkins and Hopper for first downs extended Clemson’s first drive, but Boyd locked on Bryant and missed the throw then held the ball too long on third down and was sacked. Catanzaro kicked the 49-yarder 5:02 into the game.
After Rod McDowell ran 15 yards for a first down at the N.C. State 22, the next possession fizzled and Catanzaro kicked a 45-yarder 14 seconds into the second quarter.
Limited to 34 yards in the first quarter, N.C. State’s patch held in the second quarter and the Wolfpack gashed the Clemson defense during a 92-yard scoring drive. Shadrach Thornton scored on a 21-yard counter to make it 7-6 with 11:03 to play in the half.
State missed another opportunity midway through the second quarter and eventually flipped the field for Clemson. A hold negated a first-down run, forcing the Wolfpack to punt from the shadow of the end zone.
Starting at its 44-yard line, Clemson needed eight plays to regain the lead. A 28-yard pass to Watkins, left in man coverage on the wide side, netted a first down. Still there was no rhythm. A 9-yard pass to Watkins, who had eight first-half catches, made it fourth-and-one at the 18. Boyd bulled forward for seven yards to the 11.
On the next play, he hit tight end Sam Cooper for the touchdown for a 13-7 lead with 2:23 to play in the half. It was Cooper’s first catch of the season.
Since Swinney does not sweat the polls, Clemson remains at the mercy of voters who would weigh the artistic against results.
Clemson returns to Death Valley for a Sept. 28 game with Wake Forest.
“We took care of business,” Swinney said. “You never know what you’ve got with your football team until you go on the road.
“We had some dumb mistakes and things we need to learn from, but we’re 3-0.”
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