RALEIGH, N.C. – The first half belonged to Ryan Finley and N.C. State.
The second half belonged to Kelly Bryant and Clemson.
Now the Atlantic Division title probably does, too.
Clemson vs NC State: As it happened in Tigers' win
Bryant passed for 191 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 88 yards and two more scores as No. 5 Clemson rallied for a 38-31 victory against No. 19 N.C. State Saturday at Carter-Finley Stadium.
The victory improved Clemson to 8-1 overall and 6-1 in the Atlantic Coast Conference and put the Tigers firmly in the driver’s seat in the Atlantic Division and for a third consecutive ticket to the ACC Championship Game.
The Tigers can wrap up that berth to the Dec. 2 championship in Charlotte with a win against Florida State Saturday at Memorial Stadium.
For N.C. State, it was another close-but-no-cigar outcome. The Wolfpack, which lost to eventual national champion Clemson in overtime last season and hasn’t won an ACC title since 1979 – the longest drought of any ACC team – came up short in its bid once more, falling to 6-3, 4-1 with games remaining against Boston College, Wake Forest and North Carolina.
Despite several close or high-scoring games, the victory continued Clemson’s recent domination in the series. The Tigers have won 13 of their last 14 games against N.C. State, including six in a row, and are 8-1 against the Wolfpack under coach Dabo Swinney.
“Give this crowd great credit,” Swinney said. “N.C. State, they’ve got a heck of a football team. This is an experienced and mature team and they showed that tonight. It was down to the last play. We’re very fortunate to get out of here with a win.”
Excepting an early 77-yard punt return for a touchdown by Ray-Ray McCloud, Saturday’s game certainly didn’t start out well for Clemson. N.C. State scored on its third play from scrimmage and wound up outgaining the Tigers 244-177 and dominating time of possession.
Finley, the Wolfpack’s quarterback, completed 14 consecutive passes to start the game, including touchdown passes to Kevin Harmon and Jaylen Samuels, and finished the half 15 of 18 for 154 yards as the Wolfpack took a 21-17 lead into halftime.
But Clemson gained momentum quickly in the third quarter.
Bryant was Clemson’s catalyst once again, but his biggest play of the game may have come on the first punt of his career. Facing a fourth-and-one from N.C. State’s 46-yard line on its first possession of the second half, the Tigers chose to quick kick. Bryant’s punt was downed at the N.C. State 1 and the Wolfpack didn’t reach Clemson territory again until the fourth quarter.
Clemson, meanwhile, took command with two third-quarter scores – a 12-yard pass from Bryant to Deon Cain and an 89-yard run by Tavien Feaster.
N.C. State cut the lead to 31-28 with 12:23 remaining, but Bryant added a one-yard run with 6:31 left to push the advantage to 38-28. The Wolfpack got a 22-yard field goal from Kyle Bamberg with 1:51 left, then after holding Clemson to a three-and-out, drove from their own 20 to the Clemson 33 in the final 1:20. But Finley was intercepted by K’Von Wallace on a fourth-and-15 pass to end the game.
"We’ve got a young team and a bunch of guys grew up a lot tonight," Swinney said. "First of all, they didn't flinch. If you're going to win on the road and be a championship-caliber team, you can't flinch when you have some adversity. This was a November-type game."
Bryant completed 20 of 38 passes while Finley was 31 of 50 for 338 yards and three touchdowns.
The Wolfpack outgained Clemson 491-415, but was able to convert only three of 13 third downs. Clemson converted 7 of 16 third down attempts and the Tigers’ defense had eight tackles for loss.
Next up? Florida State, followed by The Citadel and rival South Carolina.
"We've still got business to take care of," Swinney said.
Scott Keepfer, The Greenville News