Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said he expected a tough, hard-fought game.
Swinney and the sixth-ranked Tigers got one from N.C. State.
The defending national champions put together a strong second half Saturday to win 38-31 at Carter-Finley Stadium, but the Tigers had to battle to the final seconds. It wasn’t until K’Von Wallace picked off a fourth-down pass by the Pack’s Ryan Finley’s inside the Clemson 10-yard line that the game was decided.
“It was an unbelievable ballgame,” Swinney said. “I thought N.C. State played a heck of a game, especially in the first half when they kicked our butt.
“This is an incredibly experienced and veteran-led team that we were going to play at (the Pack’s) home. I’m really proud of our team. That was championship-type football where you have to make critical plays in critical situations.”
The 20th-ranked Pack took a 4-0 ACC record into the game, at the same time realizing to win the division it was almost a must that it beat Clemson. N.C. State led 21-17 at the half and had chances in the third quarter to build a bigger lead.
The Tigers instead made the bigger plays. Clemson already had gotten a 77-yard punt return from Ray-Ray McCloud in the first quarter for its first touchdown, McCloud being hit but not brought down by four or five Wolfpack defenders along the way.
“That’s why we didn’t fire him,” Swinney said of McCloud, a junior from Tampa. Fla. “That’s why we hung in there with him. I wanted to fire him many times in the last year or so, but he grew up and matured. He’s a special talent.”
Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant shook off an early interception to complete 20 of 38 throws for 191 yards and a score, without a sack. He rushed for 88 yard on 20 carries, and also was used on a quick kick in the third quarter, the Tigers downing his 45-yard punt at the NCSU 1-yard line to swing field position.
Finley threw for 338 yards and three scores for the Pack, completing his first 13 passes in the game, and was sacked just once by the Tigers.
“Their quarterback is a heck of player,” Swinney said. “If you give him any space at all he’s taking it.”
The Wolfpack offense was hurt by having running back Nyheim Hines still feeling the effects an ankle injury from the Notre Dame game. Jaylen Samuels was shaken up on a pass play in Saturday’s game and taken to the locker room for medical evaluation but was able to return to the game with limited effectiveness.
“Proud of those kids for trying,” Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren said. “They really wanted to be out there. It hurts, you know? That’s why you recruit. You find a great player and you need them in a big game like that.
“Offensively we had 491 yards, and Nyheim wasn’t healthy. I think we did a great job putting together a package that still gave us a chance to win. We scored 31 points.”
In this tough, hard-fought game, 31 weren’t enough to win.