- The Tigers showed they're for real with a dominant showing against previously unbeaten NC State, and may have passed their biggest test on the way to another ACC title in the process.
Questions surrounding Clemson’s dominance and if it truly belonged in the same conversation as its unbeaten peers in the top four were answered Saturday with a 41–7 blowout win over NC State.
NC State appeared to be Clemson’s biggest hurdle on the way to the ACC championship and College Football Playoff. It was a fair prediction that this game would be close, with the Wolfpack nearly upsetting their Atlantic divisional rival the last few years and both teams looking fairly even (at least on paper) heading into Saturday. Quarterbacks Ryan Finley and Trevor Lawrence led the league in efficiency, completing nearly 70% of their passes through this point, while both defenses were stifling, limiting opponents to less than 17 points per game.
But after Saturday, only the Tigers look the part of a future conference champion, and now have a clear path to the league title and playoff.
Lawrence, who watched most of the fourth quarter from the sideline, completed 26 of 39 passes to 10 different receivers for 308 yards with one touchdown. Finley didn’t have nearly as strong of a day, struggling to get anything going downfield, and finished 21 of 34 for 156 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions. Before this game, Finley had 10 touchdowns to just three interceptions all season. It was just the second time all season he was held below 300 yards passing, the other in a 35–21 win over Virginia. Clemson’s third-ranked defense also had 10 tackles for loss and held NC State to 2 of 12 on third down and only 297 total yards, well below its average (480.2).
NC State prided itself on a resilient rush defense that had allowed the fewest rushing touchdowns in the country (three) entering Saturday. Though Clemson didn’t have its best day running the ball, racking up just 91 yards on the ground, it still scored four rushing touchdowns. Star tailback Travis Etienne was held to 39 yards on 15 carries, but he scored three of those touchdowns. He has now scored nine touchdowns in the last three games and 14 this season, tied for the most in the country.
The Wolfpack were sort of a mysterious group heading into this game with a 5–0 record, sans any signature wins. Their game against West Virginia on Sept. 15 was cancelled due to Hurricane Florence, which likely would have given better indication into just how strong this team was before a trip to Death Valley. Now, who can challenge Clemson the rest of the season?
The Tigers still have games against Florida State, Louisville, Boston College, Duke and South Carolina. Dabo Swinney’s team likely won’t be able to afford a slip-up at this point, but it certainly proved Saturday it doesn’t look like a weak link and will be a force to battle with down the road.