Clemson overcame one of its biggest remaining regular-season hurdles to returning to the College Football Playoff with a 38-31 win at N.C. State on Saturday at Carter-Finley Stadium.
Tigers defensive back K’Von Wallace picked off N.C. State quarterback Ryan Finley on the final play of the game to seal Clemson’s win and move the Tigers closer to a third consecutive ACC Atlantic title and College Football Playoff berth.
The 20th-ranked Wolfpack (6-3, 4-1) trailed by seven with 1:24 remaining, needing a touchdown to tie the game, and drove as far as the Clemson 28 before Finley was picked off on fourth-and-15.
Finley connected with a receiver on fourth-and-10 to put the ball inside the Clemson 5 with seconds remaining, but an illegal shift was called. Finley was picked off on the next play as the Tigers won a second consecutive game against the Wolfpack that was decided in the final seconds.
No. 4 Clemson (8-1, 6-1) can clinch the ACC Atlantic title with a win against Florida State next week or an N.C. State loss in one of its final three games.
“It was an unbelievable ball game. It was a great effort by both teams. I thought N.C. State played a heck of a game, especially in the first half, they kicked our butt,” Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said. “We knew it was going to be a tough, hard-fought game… We have a really young team, and I thought a lot of our guys grew up tonight.”
Clemson’s defense struggled for much of the day, allowing 491 total yards, including 338 passing yards to Finley, but the Tigers made plays when they needed to in the fourth quarter.
In addition to Wallace’s interception, Ryan Carter picked off Finley early in the final period with Clemson clinging to a 31-28 lead. The Tigers scored on the ensuing drive.
Finley had thrown only one interception all year before the Tigers picked him off twice in the final period.
“This was championship-type football where you have to make critical plays in critical situations,” Swinney said. “I’m proud of the perseverance of our guys … We got done what we came up here to do, and that was to find a way to win and stay on track.”
The Tigers took their first lead on Kelly Bryant’s 12-yard touchdown pass to Deon Cain with 3:24 left in the third quarter and led the rest of the way.
Bryant got off to a rough start, connecting on 3 of his first 10 attempts, but rebounded to complete 20 of 38 passes for 191 yards with a touchdown and an interception. The junior also rushed for 88 yards and two scores.
Ray-Ray McCloud had a 77-yard punt return for a touchdown in the first quarter, Clemson’s first since 2014, while Tavien Feaster rushed for an 89-yard touchdown, Clemson’s longest run since 1993.
Finley tossed touchdowns to Jakobi Meyers, Kelvin Harmon and Jaylen Samuels. Samuels also rushed for a touchdown.
Star of the game: Tigers receiver Deon Cain had nine grabs for 84 yards, including the touchdown that gave Clemson its first lead. The junior beat his man a couple of other times as well, but Bryant was unable to connect on the throw.
Play of the game: Clemson led N.C. State 31-28 midway through the fourth quarter and opted to go for it on fourth-and-five at the State 22 rather than attempt a 39-yard field goal. Bryant connected with Hunter Renfrow for a 16-yard gain, and Clemson went on to score a touchdown and make it a two-score game. Renfrow caught the ball a yard short of the first down but broke a tackle and converted the critical fourth down.
Stat of the game: 2. Clemson picked off Finley twice in the fourth quarter after the N.C. State quarterback had thrown only one interception all year.
Clemson’s experience paid off: Playing close games with big implications is nothing new for Clemson, and the Tigers made the plays late when they needed to.
McCloud is versatile: The junior contributed on offense, defense and special teams in the win.
Feaster can change a game: Clemson led by three late in the third quarter when the sophomore busted loose for an 89-yard touchdown run and gave the Tigers some breathing room.
Who: Florida State
When: Saturday, Nov. 11, TBA