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Clemson vs. NC State: Tigers Survive Against the Wolfpack

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The Tigers survive a late run by the Wolfpack to come home with a 38-31 win.

NCAA Football: Clemson at North Carolina State
Kelly Bryant throws the ball against NC State.
Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Clemson traveled to Raleigh to take on the NC State Wolfpack in a game that was, with Florida State’s decline this year, likely to be the game that would decide the ACC Atlantic division champion.

State won the toss and elected to defer. A touchback on the kickoff gave the Tigers the ball on the 25. The Tigers went up-tempo and Tavien Feaster got a yard on first down. Kelly Bryant then threw twice with the second pass being intercepted on a terrible throw, giving State the ball on the Tiger 40. On third down the Tigers blitzed hard but State QB Ryan Finley got the pass away in time to complete a 40-yard strike into the Tiger end zone. And just like that, the Wolfpack was up 7-0.

Travis Etienne had a good kickoff return to the 30. On second down Kelly Bryant had an 18-yard run. A false-start penalty had the Tigers at 3rd-and-9 and Bryant missed an open Ray-Ray McCloud, who was wearing jersey number 21 instead of his usual 34. Clemson’s coaches were prepared to have him play defense given the injuries affecting the Tiger secondary. Clemson punted the ball away and State started at the 15, but the Clemson defense forced a 3-and-out when Christian Wilkins tipped the pass on 3rd down. McCloud then did what we have all been waiting for all year: take a punt to the house. It was a 77-yard return with great cuts by McCloud, but just importantly, some good, clean blocks by his teammates. (I’m betting many of you were yelling “No blocks in the back!” just like I was.) The game was tied 7-7.

After a kick out of bounds, State took over at the 35. The Wolfpack started moving the ball well with slants and crossing routes. Tre Lamar made a great tackle on 3rd down near the Tiger 38 to force a 4th-and-1 but the State running back got to the edge to convert. Jalen Samuels had several solid runs in the drive and a pass interference penalty put the ball on the Tiger 2 yard line. Two plays later, Samuels was in the end zone to give the Wolfpack a 14-7 lead.

Etienne had another good return, putting the Tiger offense at the 29. After a couple of bad throws, Bryant found Hunter Renfrow on 3rd and 10 to get the first down. On the next third down Bryant hit Deon Cain to bring up 4th and a short 1. Bryant took it up the middle to move the sticks. Bryant then underthrew a wide open Diondre Overton for what would have been a sure score. On third down, Bryant threw a strike to Deon Cain and gave the Tigers a fresh set of downs at the State 27. McCloud drew a pass interference penalty to put the Tigers at the State 10. Bryant then took it in on the next play behind a great block on two defenders by Mitch Hyatt, tying the game at 14-14 with 14:04 in the second quarter.

State moved down the field on good passing and a trick play. The Tiger defense was looking quite vulnerable at this point and State had 1st and goal at the 7. DC Brent Venables took a timeout to get things straightened out, but it didn’t prevent the Wolfpack from getting into the end zone. State was up again 21-14. For a game featuring two teams with great defenses, it was turning into a shootout.

Feaster returned a short kickoff to the 28. The Tigers moved down the field on some good runs by Etienne. A pass interference penalty and a roughing the passer penalty penalty got the Tigers into the red zone. Two consecutive incompletions made the Tigers settle for an Alex Spence field goal. State was up 21-17.

State took the kickoff back to their 20. They had another good drive running and throwing. The Clemson defense was not getting much pressure on the QB on drop-back passing plays. But State ended up with 4-and-10 at the Tiger 17 and missed a field goal. Clemson got the ball back on their own 20 with just under two minutes left in the half. The Tiger passing game showed some signs of life as the Tigers moved into State territory on some accurate throws to the sidelines. The Tigers got into the red zone but Bryant couldn’t connect with his receivers and they came out for a 39-yard field goal attempt. State iced Spence with two timeouts and he ended up missing. State went into halftime up 21-17.

After Spence put the kickoff into the end zone for a touchback, State got the ball at the 25 to start the second half. After getting one first down, State was at 3rd and long and appeared to have converted it on a nice effort by their receiver but after review it was clear he didn’t control it before going out of bounds. State’s punter had a nice kick that put the Tigers on their own 10. On 3rd and 4, Bryant hit TE Milan Richard for 29 yards. Bryant couldn’t quite get a first down on 3rd and 5 in no man’s land and the Tiger offense appeared to be going for it on 4th and 1 but Bryant punted it and Renfrow downed it at the State 1 yard line. The Tiger defense capitalized and forced a 3-and-out. McCloud came awfully close to breaking loose on another punt return and the Tigers started with great field position at the State 49.

Bryant had Cain wide open but couldn’t quite get the ball to him on the second play of the drive and on third down he missed Renfrow, making absolutely nothing of the field position. After the punt, State took over at the 10. The Tigers got lucky on 1st down when a State receiver got open down the sideline but the ball was overthrown. The Tiger secondary then had a couple of good plays to force the 3-and-out. McCloud fair caught the punt at mid-field and the Tiger offense got a second chance to do something with great field position.

On 3rd down, Bryant appeared to be headed for a sack but scrambled and found Cain for the 1st down. The drive then picked up steam with good runs and throws by Bryant. Etienne appeared to have a TD run but it was called back on a chop block by Tyrone Crowder that looked like a pretty questionable call to me. After a good run by Bryant to get some of the penalty yardage back, he hit Cain for a 12-yard TD. The Tigers led for the first time, 24-21. After good coverage by the Tigers kick team, State got the ball on their 17.

The Tigers got State into a 3rd and 8 but the Wolfpack got 23 yards on a throw. On the next 3rd down, the Tiger defense held and State punted. The Tigers took over at their 11. On first down Feaster hit a huge hole up the middle and before he even got to the hole, I thought “He’s gone.” and he was, with an 89 yard run to the end zone. The Tigers were up 31-21 at the end of the 3rd quarter. Spence then made an ugly kickoff out of bounds to give State the ball at the 35.

The Tiger secondary gave up a 47-yard pass reception, but the Wolfpack committed a block in the back to negate a lot of the yardage. But State kept moving the ball and I noticed that LB Kendall Joseph was not in the game. He had injured his right knee earlier and was obviously limping when he was in the game. State’s passing attack kept firing on all cylinders and they got a 15-yard touchdown pass reception to bring the score to 31-28. The Tigers were not getting any pressure on the QB and the secondary was not covering the WRs. It was time for Venables to work his magic and slow down the Wolfpack offense.

The Tigers started at the 26 with about 12 minutes left. On 3rd and 1 Bryant gave the ball to Etienne when he should have kept it on an option and the State defense smothered it. Clemson punted and State took over at their 28. On first down, Clelin Ferrell sacked Finley and on the next play, Ryan Carter got an interception to give the Tigers the ball on the Wolfpack 27. On 3rd and 5 Bryant couldn’t connect with McCloud in the end zone. Clemson went for it on 4th down and Renfrow had awesome second effort and got the first down and more to make it 1st and goal. Bryant’s legs got it to 3rd and goal at the 1. He then beat the State defense to the corner to score and make it 38-28 Clemson with just under seven minutes left.

On their drive State, got to the 50 on a good run with Tiger DT Dexter Lawrence out of the game. They then got their passing game going again and got down the Tiger 20. Venables got another timeout, as much to give his gassed defensive line a rest as anything. The Tigers were able to keep State out of the end zone, forcing them to settle for a FG and making it 38-21 Tigers.

State executed an onside kick, but Clemson recovered it with 1:50 left. Bryant had a 7 yard run on first down and State called timeout with 1:43 left. Bryant ran again and got nothing. State took another timeout with 1:36 left. On 3rd and 3 Bryant lost a yard and another State timeout left the clock at 1:31. Will Spiers punted it into the end zone to put State 80 yards away from a tying score.

Finley’s first down pass was incomplete and the clock showed 1:20. On second down, the Wolfpack got 7 but the clock was running. LB Tre Lamar tipped the 3rd down pass and State was facing a 4th and 2 on their 28 with a minute left. Finley scrambled for the 1st down. On the next play, they completed a pass to get to the 50. They then did the same thing. With 41 seconds left, State had the ball at the Clemson 28. The 1st and 2nd down passes were incomplete. With 32 seconds left, on 3rd down K’Von Wallace laid the wood to the State WR as he was about to score and knocked the ball loose. It was 4th and 10 with 27 seconds left. State appeared to get to the 5 but they committed a procedure penalty to bring it back. State had 18 seconds left and 4th and 15, but Wallace picked the ball off to seal the win.

So the Tigers got the road victory against a good NC State team. I’m concerned about some of the injuries to important players like Lawrence and Joseph, the latter looking a bit worse to me. Next week the Tigers are back in Death Valley to face Florida State. Check back with us over the next few days for in-depth analysis of today’s game and what to expect next week from the Seminoles. I thought State exposed some issues with the Tiger secondary and the depth of the defensive line. Let us know what you think in the comments.