As good as Ryan Finley and N.C. State’s offense were in the first half of Saturday’s ACC showdown, Clemson’s defense proved better in the end.
After Finley completed his first 14 passes to give the No. 20 Wolfpack a halftime lead, No. 6 Clemson clamped down in the second half, and the Tigers rallied for a 38-31 win at Carter-Finley Stadium.
The win puts the Tigers (8-1, 6-1 ACC) in position to clinch the ACC Atlantic Division title with a win on Saturday against Florida State. The Wolfpack (6-3, 4-1) needs to win its three remaining games and see Clemson lose at Florida State to win the division title.
“They didn’t want to be denied that game tonight, and I’m proud of them for how they fought,” N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said. “I’ve got a great group of guys to coach. I really do. I’m proud of the way they continue to battle, and I know they will, even though they are down now, battle as the season continues and goes on.”
Finley threw two touchdowns during a magnificent first half to give Wolfpack a 21-17 halftime lead.
But Clemson’s defense stuffed N.C. State in the third quarter, limiting the Wolfpack to just 48 total yards. After completing 14 passes in a row to start the game, Finley hit just 4 of his next 13.
“I thought we had them,” N.C. State wide receiver Jakobi Meyers said. “A couple of plays here and there changed it into a different game. We have got to execute better.”
Though its offense slowed, the Wolfpack maintained a lead and was in position to further protect it when Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant made his biggest play of the game in the third quarter.
Facing third-and-6 from the Wolfpack 45 with 6:13 to play in the quarter, Bryant faced a heavy pass rush and rolled to his right. On the run, he fired a pass perfectly downfield where Deon Cain caught it for an 8-yard gain to keep the drive alive.
Bryant ran the ball twice and completed two more passes to give the Tigers first-and-goal from the 7. With 3:31 to play in the quarter, Bryant tossed a 12-yard touchdown pass to Cain giving Clemson its first lead of the game at 24-21.
Finley completed three passes on N.C. State’s next drive but, faced with fourth-and-1 from the Clemson 49, N.C. State coach Dave Doeren opted to punt.
Clemson took over at its 11 but the move backfired on the Wolfpack.
On the final play of the third quarter, Tavien Feaster broke through the line and sprinted for an 89-yard touchdown run and a 31-21 Clemson lead.
“We misfit the play and missed a tackle,” Doeren said.
Finley brought the Wolfpack back, driving 65 yards in just 2:37. His 15-yard touchdown pass to Jakobi Meyers with 12:23 left in the game left Clemson leading 31-28.
Following a Clemson punt, N.C. State took over at its 28 with 10:12 left in the game. But Finley slipped while avoiding Clemson’s pass rush for a sack and a 9-yard loss.
On the next play, Finley’s pass was intercepted by Clemson’s Ryan Carter at the N.C. State 27 with 9:34 left.
Bryant’s 1-yard touchdown run with 6:31 left restored Clemson’s 10-point lead.
Kyle Bambard kicked a 22-yard field goal with 1:51 to play, pulling the Wolfpack within a touchdown. But Clemson recovered N.C. State’s onside kick.
The Wolfpack got the ball back at its 20 with 1:24 to play and no timeouts. N.C. State picked up three first downs and reached the Clemson 28 with 41 seconds left on Finley’s 22-yard pass to Kelvin Harmon. He nearly connected with Samuels for the tying touchdown, but Clemson’s K’Von Wallace knocked the ball away for an incomplete pass at the goal line with 27 seconds left.
Finley completed a pass to Meyers inside the Clemson 5 on the next play but a penalty for an illegal shift wiped out the gain. On the next play, Wallace intercepted Finley’s pass to seal Clemson’s win.
Finley finished 31-of-50 for 338 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions. While helping Clemson to 415 yards of total offense, Bryant completed 20 of 38 passes for 191 yards while rushing 20 times to gain 88 yards.
Finley’s near perfect first half helped the Wolfpack build a 21-17 halftime lead.
After N.C. State’s Tim Kidd-Glass intercepted a Bryant pass at the N.C. State 40 on Clemson’s first possession, Finley fired a 40-yard touchdown pass to Harmon on third down for a 7-0 Wolfpack lead.
Clemson tied the score on special teams with 8:59 left in the first quarter when Ray-Ray McCloud weaved his way 77 yards through the Wolfpack coverage team on a punt return for a score.
Finley, with plenty of help from Jaylen Samuels, responded immediately with an impressive 65-yard, 12-play touchdown drive that used 6:34 of the first quarter clock. Samuels carried the ball on seven of the drives 12 plays while Finley completed all three of his pass attempts.
The Wolfpack benefited from a Clemson pass-interference penalty on third-and-1 from the 7. Samuels scored on a 1-yard dive with 2:25 left in the first quarter for a 14-7 N.C. State lead.
After struggling on their first two drives, the Tigers found their groove on offense on their third possession.
Though the Wolfpack defense was effective on first and second downs, Bryant completed three third-down passes on the drive. The Tigers also converted a fourth-and-1 on a Bryant run into N.C. State territory.
A pass-interference penalty on N.C. State’s Mike Stevens, while guarding McCloud on a deep pass, moved the Tigers to the Wolfpack 10.
Bryant’s hesitation and run up the middle for a 10-yard touchdown tied the score at 14 with 14:04 left in the first half.
Finley, though, had yet another answer for the Wolfpack. He completed four passes on the first five plays of the ensuing drive, including a 21-yard pass to Meyers to the Clemson 30.
Finley scrambled for 12 yards and Samuels gained 10 more to the Clemson 8.
Two plays later, Samuels hauled in Finley’s pass at the goal line and fell into the end zone for a 21-14 N.C. State lead with 9:29 left in the half.
Two N.C. State defensive penalties, pass interference by Stevens and Bradley Chubb’s roughing the passer call on a third-and-5 play from the Wolfpack 28, moved Clemson inside the 20.
But N.C. State’s defense tightened up, leaving Clemson to settle for a 26-yard field goal from Alex Spence that cut the Wolfpack lead to 21-17.
Both teams missed field goals in the final minutes of the first half, allowing the Wolfpack to lead 21-17 at intermission.