First, came the boos. Then some trash and spit followed as Riley Johnson and his officiating crew hastily exited the field at Carter-Finley Stadium on Saturday night.
It was clear who N.C. State fans were upset with after the 20th-ranked Wolfpack’s 38-31 loss to No. 4 Clemson.
The Wolfpack crowd booed the officials early and often as N.C. State was flagged for twice as many penalties as the Tigers. The frustration wasn’t confined to the people in the stands. N.C. State (6-3, 4-1 ACC) senior receiver/running back Jaylen Samuels said the players were frustrated by the officials, too.
Samuels, who scored a pair of touchdowns, said he didn’t expect to get any calls against the fourth-ranked Tigers (8-1, 6-1 ACC) in a game that ostensibly decided the Atlantic Division race.
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“When you get the defending national champions coming into our place, that’s how it’s going to be,” Samuels said.
N.C. State had a late fourth-down conversion wiped out by a penalty — and a penalty flag picked up against Clemson on the same drive — which drew the ire of Wolfpack fans.
Receiver Jakobi Meyers had a 24-yard catch offset by an illegal shift with 27 seconds left on fourth-and-10 from the Clemson 28-yard line.
Before the snap, Meyers and Samuels were in the slot and stepped off the line while quarterback Ryan Finley called an audible. Receiver Stephen Louis, lined up on the outside near the N.C. State sideline, stepped toward the line but his timing was off and he was called for the penalty.
“That was a tough one for us,” said Meyers, who finished with nine catches for 105 yards and a touchdown. “It’s the rules. (The officials) know the rules better than what we do. We’re just going to listen to what they call.”
Instead of first-and-goal from the 4, N.C. State had to try to convert on fourth-and-15 from the 33. Finley threw an interception to Clemson’s K’Von Wallace on the last play of the game.
N.C. State finished the game with six penalties for 69 yards and Clemson was called for three penalties for 23 yards.
N.C. State coach Dave Doeren wasn’t exactly thrilled with the officiating in last week’s loss at Notre Dame, when his team was called for a season-high 12 penalties.
The fifth-year Wolfpack coach didn’t say much about the officiating in Saturday’s game.
“I wish it was a lot better,” Doeren said.
The frustration is understandable. Three of the final eight plays on N.C. State’s last drive, featured a call, or non-call, that didn’t help the Wolfpack.
On fourth-and-2 from N.C. State’s 28-yard line, Finley scrambled for five yards for the first down. When he stepped out of bounds, Clemson cornerback A.J. Terrell dove to tackle Finley and a flag was thrown. The late hit would have added 15 yards to the end of the run. Johnson picked up the flag and waved it off.
Later in the drive, on second-and-10 from Clemson’s 28, Finley tried to hit Samuels over the middle. Clemson linebacker Dorian O’Daniel got to Samuels before the ball did. Doeren lobbied for a call on the sidelines but there was no flag on the play.
Of N.C. State’s six penalties, half were defensive pass interference, which only riled up the crowd even more.
“We had to play to smart,” Samuels said. “We knew every catch was going to be contested.”
After Finley tried to hit Samuels in the end zone on third down, a pass broken up by Wallace, the illegal shift penalty ensued.
You can’t control the penalties — or a catch by Meyers in the third quarter that was overturned after Finley had already snapped the ball for the next play — but you can control how you react to them.
“Sometimes it doesn’t go your way but we still have to chug along,” senior guard Tony Adams said. “I feel like we didn’t necessarily do that as well as we could have the whole game.”
As frustrated as N.C. State was with the officials, it played its own way into a fourth-quarter hole after leading 14-7 and 21-14 in the first half.
Clemson got an 89-yard touchdown run by Tavien Feaster to take a 31-21 lead on the last play of the third quarter. The Tigers also got a 77-yard punt return for a touchdown from Ray-Ray McCloud in the first quarter to offset N.C. State’s 27 to 19 advantage in first downs.
“We played a good game,” said running back Nyheim Hines, who had 34 rushing yards on a gimpy right ankle. “We fought hard. There was a lot of good to take out of this. We’re going to take the good and wash down the bad.”
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio