RALEIGH N.C. State’s defense kept making plays Thursday, giving the Wolfpack a chance, at times giving Clemson fits.
During the first half, it was a sack of Tajh Boyd by defensive end Art Norman. Or a big hit by linebacker Robert Caldwell, who had 13 tackles. Or a hustling play in the secondary to knock away a pass.
“Our guys were locked in,” N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said after the Pack’s 26-14 loss to the third-ranked Tigers. “The kids executed.”
Clemson came into the ACC opener averaging 45 points and 489.5 yards a game. A year ago, the Tigers ignited for 754 yards in a 62-48 victory over the Pack at Death Valley.
“They thrive off explosive plays, so we focused on trying to eliminate those explosive plays and make them go the distance,” Wolfpack cornerback Dontae Johnson said. “Just play together and make the plays we’re supposed to make.”
The Pack’s defensive line was physical enough, pressuring Boyd and causing him to hurry some passes. Boyd accounted for eight touchdowns in last season’s meeting, but his numbers Thursday – 244 yards passing, 38 rushing – weren’t eye-opening.
“We had to secure Tajh Boyd,” defensive end Mike Rose said. “He’s a big part of their offense, if not the biggest.”
Even some bad breaks didn’t deter or deflate the Wolfpack defenders. During the first half, cornerback Juston Burris stepped in front of a Boyd pass along the sideline and appeared touchdown-bound, only to have the whistle blow. A Clemson timeout had been called before the snap.
“That would have been a huge momentums swing for our side,” Johnson said of the play. “We were unable to force any turnovers in the game, which we did the first two (games), and it really hurt us. Against a great team you have to force turnovers to help the offense out.”
But it was the Pack’s offense that didn’t give the defense enough help. There were too many penalties, too many mistakes, and some play calls and personnel decisions that appeared questionable.
“Our defense played a hell of a game against a great offense,” Pack quarterback Pete Thomas said. “Our defense stopped ’em, but we didn’t do enough on offense and it starts with me. Plays were there to be made and I didn’t make them.”
During the third quarter, N.C. State wideout Bryan Underwood sped down the right sideline for what would have been an 83-yard touchdown run, but he was ruled to have stepped out of bounds at the Clemson 47. Three plays later, Thomas was sacked and fumbled, Clemson recovering at the NCSU 48.
Norman had another big stop, but the Tigers converted on the turnover as Boyd rifled a 30-yard scoring pass to Martavis Bryant.
Late in the third quarter, the Pack pushed to the Clemson 25. But a false-start penalty hurt the Pack and Nik Sade missed a 48-yard field-goal attempt on the first play of the final quarter.
The Tigers were able to wear down the Wolfpack defense a bit, Boyd hitting Bryant for another score. The Pack did drive for a late score, perhaps building some offensive momentum for its game next week against Central Michigan
“Clemson is a very good football team, but I thought we were very physical with them,” Doeren said. “We played our butts off.”