No. 9 Clemson has survived plenty of close calls against ACC opponents in recent years. Somehow, some way, it has routinely come up with the winning plays in key moments to preserve a dynasty that has totaled six straight conference championships. Now, the Tigers sit behind NC State for first place the ACC Atlantic after the Wolfpack bounced the reigning champions from the College Football Playoff picture with a 27-21 win on Saturday in Raleigh, North Carolina.
NC State rallied back in overtime after missing a potential game-winning 39-yard field goal at the end of regulation, securing the victory with a Devin Leary touchdown pass to Devin Carter on the first possession of double overtime.
It's the first loss for Clemson against an unranked team since 2017, ending a streak of 36 such wins. It's also just the Tigers' fourth ACC loss since the start of the 2015 season.
A close win against Georgia Tech in Week 3 seemed to confirm the concern about whether Clemson was in a position to be the overwhelming ACC favorite that has become the expectation. Saturday afternoon in Raleigh only doubled down on those concerns.
Now, the Tigers have been bounced from the driver's seat.
Clemson's offense struggled for the third straight game against an FBS opponent, riding the success of a few splash plays for the points it was able to put on the scoreboard. The Tigers defense played great on a down-to-down basis, but there was only so much it could do when NC State continually began with good field position as a result of ineffective Clemson drives.
Clemson quarterback DJ Uiagalelei finished the game with just 111 yards on 12-of-24 passing with two touchdown and one interception, and Clemson as a team only had 214 yards of offense compared to NC State's 386.
For NC State, it's the first win against a top-10 team since 2012, and it's easily the biggest win of the Dave Doeren era. Under his leadership, the Wolfpack have come close to knocking off Dabo Swinney's Tigers, including an overtime loss in Death Valley in 2016. On Saturday, he finally got the signature win of his NC State tenure.
Three things to note about the win and what it means moving forward:
1. The injuries are an issue for Clemson, too
The Tigers were already thin at some position groups heading into the game, but now things could be dire after significant attrition in the loss. Veteran linebacker James Skalski was knocked out of the game in the first half with a shoulder injury and star defensive tackle Bryan Bresee left in the third quarter. Freshman running back Will Shipley, just days after emerging from a crowded competition as the team's new starter, left the game in in overtime with a concerning leg injury.
Before the season even started, a couple of offensive line injuries left that group thin in a way that has Clemson relying on its five starters extensively, and just this week we found out starting defensive tackle Tyler Davis will miss 7-8 weeks because of a bicep injury that required surgery. If Shipley's injury is serious, it makes the midseason transfer of veteran running back Lyn-J Dixon all the more impactful and life becomes even more difficult for D.J. Uiagalalei as it pertains to getting the offense on track.
2. No quarterback controversy for Clemson
Swinney was asked about whether the staff would consider replacing Uiagalelei after a third straight game of struggles against an FBS opponent. Swinney said there's "nothing you don't evaluate" after a result like this, but that "I think D.J. is our quarterback."
The fact that Clemson is going to stick with its former five-star prospect and not go to the backup who suffered a torn Achilles in the spring game, or the former walk-on who rounds out the quarterback room, is not a surprise. But what was telling was the quote that followed. Swinney noted that the last time his offense struggled with execution like this group was "2010, maybe."
Dabo on the last time the offense has been... like this: "It's been a long time, man. And it hurts tonight. 2010, maybe."— Anna Hickey (@AnnaH247) September 26, 2021
That was Dabo Swinney's second full season as head coach and the last year before he hired Chad Morris, leading to the program's first ACC title in 20 years. Since 2011, there has been a standard for Clemson's offense, and while Uiagalelei remains the starter, he must be a big part of changing the fortunes for a group that hasn't lived up to the expectations.
3. Overcoming "NC State stuff"
There's a saying around Raleigh about NC State … "stuff." The repeated act of having your heart broken time and time again creates both a callousness and a level of existential dread that exists at all times within the fan base. NC State outplayed Clemson for most of the game, but the fact that they could not put the Tigers away, especially with that field goal attempt at the end of regulation, left an angsty tension in Carter-Finley Stadium.
Devin Leary's answer on the game-winning pass turned the tides of fate for a program that has come up just short in these spots too often in the nine years of Doeren's tenure. Prior to this win, the list of top-25 wins was highlighted by a victory against Notre Dame in the midst of an actual hurricane in 2016, as well as last year's rock-fight win against Liberty. Beating Clemson checks so many boxes for Doeren and this program, which he's worked so hard to bring up to the standards of being a contender in the hyper-competitive ACC Atlantic.
As we turn the calendar from September to October, the Wolfpack are in first place in the division with a head-to-head win against the next-best team in the race. Now that NC State has leveled up to the driver's seat, we get to see how it handles with its hands on the wheel.