Kelvin Harmon got behind Clemson’s defense.
There was only green grass in front of N.C. State’s star receiver. The throw from quarterback Ryan Finley was on target. The ball hit Harmon’s hands but he dropped it.
It was that kind of day for the 16th-ranked Wolfpack.
There were dropped passes, a plethora of procedural penalties and too many turnovers to overcome. No. 3 Clemson cashed in all of the errors for a 41-7 win on Saturday, its seventh straight win over the Wolfpack.
“We got our (butts) kicked,” senior center Garrett Bradbury said.
That’s the long and short of it. Clemson (7-0, 4-0 ACC) looked like the best team in the ACC and N.C. State (5-1, 2-1 ACC) looked lost. This was no repeat of the close calls for the Wolfpack, like the 24-17 overtime loss here in 2016 and or the 38-31 home loss last year. This was N.C. State, unbeaten after an agreeable opening schedule, punching up in weight class and getting knocked out by the Tigers, who have won 57 of their last 61 games.
An unbelievable opportunity was within N.C. State’s reach. The Wolfpack couldn’t have won its first ACC title since 1979 on Saturday, but it almost certainly lost it.
“They played really well and I don’t think we did,” N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said. “I own that. Our guys weren’t ready and we turned the ball over, we weren’t good on third down, didn’t tackle well enough. And they played a really good football game. .”
The dozens of NFL scouts here for N.C. State quarterback Ryan Finley got a passing show, only it was from Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence. The true freshman was calm, cool and accurate. He completed 26 of 39 passes for 308 yards and a touchdown.
Meanwhile, Finley, the sixth-year senior and sure-fire NFL prospect, struggled. He was 21 of 34 for a season-low 156 yards with two interceptions and a fumble. After the missed deep shot to Harmon, the ACC’s leading receiver, the two were never able to get anything going. Harmon finished with two catches for 13 yards (both season-lows).
“We just never really got into a rhythm and that hurts because we are a rhythm offense,” Finley said.
It was N.C. State’s biggest games in years, arguably decades, but it came out flat and flustered. After Harmon’s drop, the offense was flagged for a delay of game penalty and a false start on consecutive plays. The Wolfpack had five penalties in the first half, when it dug a hole, and finished with three turnovers in the game.
Clemson’s defensive front sped up Finley and forced the ACC’s top passer into a handful of costly mistakes. Just executing the snap was a challenge.
With the slightest glimmer of hope in the second quarter, N.C State moved into Clemson territory for the first time. Down 14-0 and with a chance to get back in the game, Finley couldn’t collect a snap on third-and-10 from the Clemson 39.
The Tigers recovered the fumble with 2:15 left in the half and scored seven plays later, a 2-yard touchdown run by Travis Etienne.
The Tigers scored on their opening possession, a nine-play, 57-yard clinic and Lawrence hit receiver Tee Higgins (eight catches, 119 yards) on a 46-yard touchdown pass on their second possession.
“I thought we were going to play a heck of a game and we didn’t,” Doeren said. “It just didn’t go our way. We turned the ball over. It’s 14-0 and we turned the ball over two straight series. It just got away from us.”
Etienne’s second TD run made it 21-0 and then safety K’Von Wallace intercepted Finley before the end of the half to set up a 28-yard field goal by Greg Huegel. Etienne added his third short touchdown run in the third quarter.
N.C. State finally got on the board with a 9-yard touchdown run by Reggie Gallaspy on the first play of the fourth quarter. The Tigers added 10 more points for their 14th win over N.C. State in 15 games.
The last time N.C. State left here, it was after a chip-shot field goal sailed wide right and the team was crushed. This time, it was never that close. But the opportunity lost was much bigger.