Tahj Boyd (left) finished with 244 yards passing and three touchdowns Thursday night. (Karl B DeBlaker/AP)
Clemson certainly knew the unwelcoming history of NC State's Carter-Finley Stadium as it again ventured to Raleigh on Thursday night. The Tigers' last trip to the home of the Wolfpack in 2011 ended in heartbreak for No. 7 Clemson, which was dismantled 37-17, a loss that nearly spoiled its ACC title dreams. Just last October, NC State upended No. 3 Florida State 17-16 within the confines of Carter-Finley, halting the Seminoles' own national championship dreams. This week Clemson knew it would have to escape the Wolfpack in the same hostile environment in order to live up to the lofty, BCS-title expectations surrounding Dabo Swinney's team this season.
As expected, the NC State atmosphere packed a powerful bite, but the Tigers managed to claw their way out. No. 3 Clemson's 26-14 victory over the Wolfpack on Thursday night was neither as easy as the scoreboard indicated nor as explosive as the matchup might have been, but the Tigers still cleared one of the few major obstacles standing in the way of run at a national championship.
Early on, it seemed the normally high-octane offense of Chad Morris would face a stiff test from a formidable NC State defense. The Wolfpack came in boasting the country's 29th best total defense, holding opponents to only 318.5 yards per game, and Clemson's production in the first half made it seem like this wouldn't be the offense that reeled off 489 yards per game through its first two contests. The Tigers' first five series resulted in two field goals and three punts, and quarterback Tajh Boyd looked out of sync with receivers Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant. Boyd overthrew his pass-catchers on a handful of occasions, and the Wolfpack's vaunted defensive line pressured Boyd all night, sacking the senior twice on the opening drive. Were it not for Boyd's 11-yard touchdown strike to tight end Sam Cooper late in the second period, the same offense that hung 38 points on No. 5 Georgia on opening weekend would've headed into the locker room at halftime without a trip to the end zone.
But Boyd looked more like himself in the second half, as did Clemson's defense. Midway through the third quarter, NC State's Bryan Underwood seemingly ran in an 83-yard touchdown to bring the Wolfpack within a touchdown, but the run was controversially called back for Underwood stepping out of bounds when the replay appeared to show otherwise. Three plays later, Clemson defensive end Vic Beasley sacked NC State quarterback Pete Thomas and forced a fumble the Tigers recovered. It was a massive shift in momentum from which Clemson never looked back. The Tigers scored on Boyd's 30-yard touchdown strike to Martavis Bryant five plays later to take a 13-point lead.
The sack by Beasley, and the defense's surge in the second half, helped Clemson gain control of a tight game. "That's what we see all the time," Swinney told ESPN after the game. "Vic is just a guy that's gotten better and better. Last year he came into his own, and he's off to a great start this year.
"I can't say enough about our defense. The offense has gotten a lot of headlines, but I love winning on defense, and they played great all night."
Boyd likewise returned to form after intermission, finishing with 244 yards on 24-of-37 passing for three touchdowns and no interceptions. Through three games, Boyd has thrown for six touchdowns, rushed for two more and completed 62 percent of his passes. He now has two big-time wins under his belt, and he'll continue to garner plenty of Heisman chatter after helping the Tigers survive a tough Thursday-night road game in Raleigh.
Clemson will be defined in its top-five ranking with wins against quality opponents, and handling the atmosphere at NC State is a tremendous step in an otherwise manageable schedule the rest of the way. The trip to Raleigh might have been the most difficult conference road test of the seat for the Tigers, as the highly anticipated matchup with Florida State takes place in Death Valley on Oct. 19. Clemson must travel to Syracuse, Maryland and Virginia in ACC play, but none of those venues are likely to offer the same challenges imposed by NC State. The Tigers' emerged unscathed Thursday, and that's what you'd expect from a championship program.