5 things we learned from Clemson’s win at NC State

Clemson scored 28 points in the first quarter on its way to a 55-10 victory at N.C. State Saturday night. The win is No. 25 in a row for the Tigers.

Clemson (10-0, 7-0) clinched the ACC Atlantic in the process. Up next the Tigers will host Wake Forest on Senior Day this Saturday. Here are five things we learned from the win over the Wolfpack:

1. Trevor Lawrence is playing the best football of his career

Clemson’s sophomore quarterback admitted he wasn’t at his best early in the season, but the interception issues he had the first half of the year seem like a distant memory. Lawrence completed 20 of 27 passes for 276 yards, with three touchdowns and no interceptions Saturday at N.C. State. The Georgia native also rushed for a score. Two of Lawrence’s incompletions were drops, and over his last five games he has 15 touchdowns and three interceptions. In the past three games he has nine touchdowns and no picks. From a passing standpoint Lawrence is just as crisp as he was when he lit up Notre Dame and Alabama in the College Football Playoff last year, but he is a noticeably better runner this season and is a big reason why the Tigers have scored at least 45 points in five consecutive games for the first time in school history.

2. The gap between Clemson and the rest of the ACC is increasing

After N.C. State put a scare into Clemson and nearly pulled off upsets in 2016 and 2017, it appeared as though Dave Doeren might be building a program capable of challenging the Tigers in the ACC Atlantic. Instead, Clemson has won the past two meetings by a combined score of 96-17. The rest of the ACC behind Clemson is a jumbled up group of mediocre teams. Wake Forest has been the second best team in the ACC for much of the year, but the Demon Deacons lost by nearly three touchdowns Saturday at Virginia Tech, allowing Clemson to clinch the Atlantic with the win at N.C. State. Clemson has won five consecutive division titles and will be a heavy favorite no matter what team it plays from the Coastal next month in Charlotte as the Tigers go for their fifth consecutive ACC championship.

“Obviously this is our fifth division in a row and I think (seven) out of 11 years. To have the opportunity to go back to Charlotte and represent the Atlantic, that’s obviously one of our goals every year,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “If we can win that game that’ll be five championships in a row, and that’s never been done.”

3. Clemson is getting creative as it searches for ways to have fun

The Tigers lined up offensive lineman John Simpson at running back in the second quarter and he scored from a yard out, dragging a defender into the end zone to record the first touchdown of his life. Later in the game, after Clemson reserve running back Michel Dukes scored from a yard out with 11 seconds remaining, linebacker James Skalski came on to attempt the extra point. Skalski missed, leading to some laughs on the sideline.

“We’ve been working that… He’s actually a good kicker. Everybody thinks it’s easier than it looks. He doesn’t miss them in practice, but all of a sudden he got a little stage fright out there tonight,” Swinney said. “But he’s kind of been our emergency guy for a while. Just haven’t really had an opportunity to throw him out there.”

With Clemson winning by the margin it has been as of late and setting records at the pace it is, the Tigers can afford to spend some practice time with their best offensive lineman working at running back or a starting linebacker practicing kicks.

4. The UNC game was a turning point

Since Clemson’s narrow 21-20 victory in Chapel Hill, the Tigers have outscored opponents 263 to 55. It’s not as if Clemson was playing poorly up until that point, but the Tigers have been at a historic level since. Clemson has scored at least 45 points in five consecutive games for the first time in school history and has scored at least 55 points in three consecutive games for the first time ever. The close call against the Tar Heels was a bit of a wake-up call for a team that entered the year No. 1 and with the Heisman favorite at QB.

“I think the adversity at North Carolina solidified who we are as individuals, which created the bond and the chemistry that this unit needed to be able to take off,” co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. “The expectations were very, very high early on and maybe some guys were listening to those expectations. But I think now there’s an understanding that we can’t worry about outside noises. We’ve gotta block that out and we’ve just got to prepare to a standard. And that’s what you’ve seen coming off that game at North Carolina.”

5. Clemson’s LBs not named Isaiah Simmons are pretty good as well

Isaiah Simmons has been the unquestioned star of the Clemson defense in 2019, but fellow starting linebackers Chad Smith and James Skalski led the way Saturday. Smith recorded a team-high seven tackles, including a tackle for loss, and had a fumble recovery. Skalski was second on the team with five tackles, two tackles for loss and a forced fumble. The two upperclassmen struggled with missed tackles at times early in the season but have gotten better and better as the year has gone along to make Clemson a more complete defense. The Tigers held N.C. State to 290 total yards, becoming the second team since 2000 to hold the first 10 opponents of a season to under 300 yards of offense. The 2011 Alabama defense is the other unit that accomplished that feat.

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Matt Connolly is the Clemson beat writer and covers recruiting and college sports for The State newspaper and The