NC State came out blazing and took advantage of No. 7-ranked Clemson's miscues to crush the Tigers 37-13 on Saturday at Carter-Finley Stadium.
NC State, who is a win away from becoming bowl eligible, host Maryland at 12:30 p.m. next Saturday. The up-and-down Wolfpack have put themselves in position to make the last game meaningful, which seemed improbable during different points in the season.
"This is a great win, but we have to move on as fast as possible," NCSU fifth-year senior tight end George Bryan said. "It doesn't mean anything unless we finish next week."
NC State's (6-5 overall, 3-4 ACC) defense picked off two passes and recovered two fumbles, plus came through on a big fourth-down stand in shutting down the high-powered Clemson offense, which entered the game averaging 37.3 points per game.
"I really have no explanation for what just happened," NCSU coach Tom O'Brien said. "College football is crazy today. Our kids decided they were going to play today, and what a great effort on defense. Offensively, we did what we had to do."
Clemson's running game grinded to a halt, rushing 34 yards on 28 carries, and its passing game was missing star freshman wide receiver and return man Sammy Watkins, who injured his shoulder last week. The reshuffled Wolfpack defensive line, with the help of some timely blitzes, harassed Tigersâ€™ quarterbacks for six sacks.
"[Just] outstanding," said NC State redshirt junior outside linebacker Terrell Manning on the play of the defense. "We shut Carolina out and came out and did this. We actually had a good game against as well. The defense is clicking right now. The offense is coming around too."
The Wolfpack seniors won for the first time against the Tigers in their careers, and snapped a seven-game losing streak. NCSU also set or tied a pair of major ACC records. Senior T.J. Graham needed 25 yards to break the all-time career kickoff return yardage mark, and the Wolfpackâ€™s defense almost proved too good for him to achieve it. He ended up with 34 yards on two returns and has 2,989 career kickoff return yards.
NC State sophomore cornerback David Amerson also made ACC history against Clemson. He went up for what has become his trademark goal line area interception to tie former North Carolina standout Dre Bly with 11 interceptions in a season. Amerson also leads the country in picks.
"It's an honor and I never thought I'd be here right now at the beginning of the season," Amerson said. "Right now, I'm looking to break it. I think we did a real good job defense getting turnovers and putting our offense into good position. That is what we come out on the field to do."
NC State redshirt junior quarterback Mike Glennon went 19 of 29 for 253 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions. He also was only sacked twice by the talented Clemson defensive line.
"I think Michael had a great night throwing the football and picking out the right guys," O'Brien said. "We were able to make plays when we had to."
O'Brien noticed the change in his team during the week at practice. Glennon said it was important to have the seniors go out with a bowl game, which can happen with a win over the last place Terrapins.
"The seniors specifically knew that if we don't win our last two, their careers at NC State are over," Glennon said. "We knew we had to step up and get this win and now we have to focus on the next one."
The first quarter started slowly enough, but the Wolfpack exploded for 27 second-quarter points, to take a commanding 27-3 halftime lead.
After the teams traded punts on each of their first possessions, the Pack found themselves in quite a hole. After fifth-year senior tight end George Bryan drew a personal foul penalty pushed the team back to a third-and-25 from the 16, redshirt junior quarterback Mike Glennon took an 11-yard loss on a sack. On the ensuing punt, a 34-yarder from freshman punter Wil Baumann, the Pack initially looked like they recovered a fumble, but the referees ruled that NC State touched the kick first.
From there, Clemson completed a seven-play, 32-yard drive capped by a 24-yard field goal from kicker Chandler Catanzaro for a 3-0 lead with 6:50 left in the first quarter.
Neither offense could get much else going for the rest of the opening frame. The teams traded punts back and forth with Clemson totaling 67 yards against 45 yards gained by the Pack in the first.
NC Stateâ€™s offense showed signs of life on the Wolfpackâ€™s first possession of the second quarter. Junior running back James Washington ripped off a 16-yard run on the first play of the drive then Glennon found Bryan on the next play for a 19-yard gain over the middle. A pass interference call on third down helped the Pack move into the red zone, where they capped the 61-yard drive with the game's first touchdown ï¿½" an 11-yard pass to Bryan with 11:35 remaining in the second quarter.
On Clemson's first play from scrimmage on the ensuing drive, redshirt freshman defensive end Art Norman forced a fumble and sack against Tigers sophomore quarterback Tajh Boyd. NCSU redshirt junior outside linebacker Terrell Manning returned the loose ball to the six-yard line. Glennon found fifth-year senior receiver Jay Smith for a seven-yard touchdown on second down to take a 14-3 lead with 10:33 left in the second quarter.
Manning came up huge on the following possession again. Clemson tried a reverse on second down and fumbled, which the linebacker recovered at the 18-yard line. Washington ripped off a 13-yard gain on first down before the offense stalled and freshman kicker Niklas Sade converted on a 21-yard attempt for a 17-3 lead with 7:26 left in the second quarter.
The Pack defense came up big again on Clemson's next possession and forced a three-and-out that was keyed by a third-down sack from Manning and Norman. After forcing Clemson to punt from inside its own end zone, Graham returned the kick 34 yards and the Pack needed just two rushes from redshirt freshman running back Tony Creecy to find pay dirt. The Pack went up 24-3 with 4:58 left in the first half.
Norman finished with 2.5 sacks and redshirt sophomore Darryl Cato-Bishop had two sacks.
Manning finished second with eight tackles, and added 3.5 tackles for loss, half a sack, one forced fumble and two fumble recoveries.
"He is playing at a very high level and we need him to play that way," O'Brien said. "I still think it comes back to the guys up front who are giving him those opportunities to run and make those plays."
Clemson's offense got moving a little bit on their next drive and picked up one first down, but the Pack defense held strong enough to force another punt. A couple of runs from Creecy and a 36-yard completion to redshirt junior wide receiver Tobais Palmer paved the way for a 32-yard field goal from freshman kicker Niklas Sade to give the Pack a 27-3 lead with five seconds left before halftime.
Six Clemson defenders had a chance to make the tackle on Palmer's catch and run.
"I felt like I was back to my normal self and how I used to play in high school," Palmer said. "I was just making plays. I know we needed that little spurt to keep the offense pumped."
Clemson received the ball to open the second half and picked up a 12-yard gain on their first play from scrimmage after the break. However, the Tigers couldn't pick up much more than that and were forced into going for it on fourth-and-four. Boyd was flushed from the pocket and was pushed out of bounds short of the yardage marker.
NC State's offense picked up right where it left off in the first half, and quickly moved the ball from the 41 into the red zone, thanks to a 19-yard completion to Washington on a halfback screen and a pair of catch and runs from Graham. The scoring drive was capped with another 21-yard field goal from Sade, which made it a 30-3 lead with 10:18 left in the third quarter.
The Clemson offense quickly responded with a seven-play, 54-yard drive that took under a minute and a half. Clemson wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins hauled in a 43-yard pass from Boyd to help get the Tigers' offense moving and Catanzaro capped the drive with a 32-yard field goal with 8:44 left in the third quarter.
Graham set the ACC's all-time kickoff return yard mark with a 15-yard run back on the kick following Clemson's second field goal.
Following Graham's record-setting return, the Pack offense did not skip a beat. A 22-yard completion to redshirt sophomore wide receiver Quintin Payton and another 22-yarder to Washington on a screen helped set up an impressive 43-yard catch and run from Palmer that put the Pack up 37-6 with 5:41 left in the third quarter.
Clemson's offense looked like it was going to respond with points and drove inside the red zone, but Amerson came down with the fourth-down interception at the Wolfpack one-yard line.
Clemson drove deep into NCSU territory once again, but junior safety Brandan Bishop came up with an interception of his own in the end zone to preserve the 37-6 lead heading into the final frame.
Clemson tacked on a touchdown late with several backups on the field. Quarterback Cole Stoudt led Clemson to a late score to cut the lead to 37-13 with 1:22 left in the game. Stoudt found junior tight end Brandon Ford for a 50-yard reception, and freshman running back Mike Bellamy plunged in from the two-yard line.
O'Brien reiterated the importance of re-focusing for Maryland next week and handling prosperity well.
"Here we are again in this situation and how are we going to come next week," O'Brien said. "That is the biggest question that has to be answered right now. We can't have a big win and then not play next week.
"What I said afterwards is that I'm still mad at them for last week [losing 14-10 to Boston College]. I'll never forgive them for that one until we get to Maryland. The only way they can make it up to me is to beat Maryland."