Game breakdown: Clemson

Keys To The Game
Don't dig yourself a hole: One thing NC State can't do is suffer from the myriad of penalties that plagued the team in the first half of its last game. The Wolfpack showed how damaging a few untimely penalties can be against Richmond, racking up three roughing the passer flags, one of which was declined, and an additional pass interference call on the Spiders' three scoring drives.
NC State won't have a margin for error like that against No. 3 Clemson. The Tigers are too good on offense to give free yards to, and if the Pack comes anywhere close to matching the 10 penalties for 89 yards it had against Richmond, the visitors will take advantage. Turnovers are another mental miscue the Pack must avoid in order to have success on Thursday, especially in the red zone, where NC State has committed three turnovers in two games. Wasted opportunities like that will prove costly against the Tigers.
Keep track of Sammy Watkins at all times: The Tigers suffered a huge blow when starting wideout Charone Peake tore his ACL Sept. 10. Not only is he the squad's second-leading receiver, but he also was one of just seven scholarship players at the position. That means NCSU can focus more on stopping dynamic junior Sammy Watkins, who has nine catches for 146 yards and a touchdown so far but is primed for a breakout game when his team needs him the most.
Watkins is a do-everything player that can contribute as a pass catcher, runner and returner. The defense must be aware of his presence at all times and must limit his yards after the catch by wrapping up and tackling effectively because the All-American is one of the nation's most dangerous weapons after he makes the grab.
Attack early and often: While the Clemson offense is one of the nation's best units, its defense is a different story — although it has shown improvements recently. Still, the NC State offense must be willing to go right at the defense that gave up 48 points to the Pack last season and play aggressive, but smart.
It will be interesting to see how Clemson fares against a taste of its own medicine with State's new no-huddle attack. The Pack must put pressure on the Clemson defense to make plays. Some new wrinkles — whether it be new formations, new personnel groupings or new plays that have not been unveiled yet — are all possibilities for Thursday. There still isn't much tape out there on the Pack's coaching staff and system, so State must use the element of the unknown to its advantage.
Run, run, run: Georgia has one of the best running back stables in the country, so it's no surprise the Bulldogs racked up 222 yards on the ground in their loss to Clemson. That helped Georgia log an advantage of more than four minutes in time of possession, which probably helped keep the SEC team in the game.
That also might have exposed the Clemson run defense, and NCSU seems intent on establishing a ground presence this year. The Pack should have its running backs at full strength with redshirt junior Tony Creecy, freshman Matt Dayes and sophomore Shadrach Thornton all healthy and ready to go. If they can wear down the Clemson defense, it would pay huge dividends.
Game outlook: NC State will have its work cut out in this one, entering the game as a two-touchdown underdog (more than that in some places). It will take the perfect storm from the Pack in order to pull off this upset — needing to play a smart, clean game, win the turnover battle and probably even receive a little bit of luck to emerge victorious. Anything is possible, but it's hard to call that the most likely scenario.
Five Clemson Players To Watch
Junior Defensive End Vic Beasley — The 6-2, 235-pounder from Adairsville (Ga.) High has two tackles, but both are sacks for minus-13 yards, and he also has a pass broken up. Both sacks were in 38-35 win over Georgia Aug. 31. He has 22 total tackles, 10 tackles for loss and 10 sacks in 24 career games. Beasley had five tackles, three sacks and a forced fumble against NC State last year.
Senior Quarterback Tajh Boyd — The Hampton, Va., native is a legit Heisman Trophy candidate this season. The 6-1, 225-pounder has completed 32 of 53 passes for 439 yards with three touchdowns and zero interceptions in two games. He also has rushed 19 times for 52 yards and three scores. Boyd passed for 3,896 yards and 36 touchdowns in 2012, and rushed for 514 yards and 10 scores.
Senior Weakside Linebacker Spencer Shuey — The former Charlotte South Mecklenburg standout leads the Tigers with 23 tackles through two games. The 6-3, 240-pounder had 18 tackles in the 38-35 win over Georgia. Shuey had 93 tackles, six tackles for loss and a sack last year, which was the first season he broke into the lineup. He started seven games and played in 13, and had 69 tackles over his last seven contests.
Senior Left Tackle Brandon Thomas — The 6-3, 315-pounder from Spartanburg, S.C., has played both guard and tackle in his college career. He was named first-team All-ACC by the media and second-team all-league by coaches last year. He had 23 knockdowns in a team-high 987 snaps in 13 games last year. Thomas has started 25 games and played in 36 contests, and entered this season with 66 career knockdowns.
Junior Wide Receiver Sammy Watkins — The 6-1, 205-pounder from Fort Myers, Fla., was an instant producer his freshman year, but battled a suspension and injuries last year. Watkins has caught nine passes for 146 yards, including a 77-yard touchdown, plus is a threat in the return game. Watkins caught 82 passes for 1,219 yards and 12 touchdowns his freshman year, and had 57 receptions for 708 and three scores in 10 games last year.
Three Matchups To Watch
1. NC State will need to limit star junior wide receiver Sammy Watkins' big plays. The 6-1, 205-pounder can take a short pass the distance, and if he is used in the return game he is always dangerous in the open field.
Watkins has eclipsed 100 receiving yards eight times during his career. He was injured when Clemson played NC State in 2011, but caught 11 passes for 110 yards and a touchdown in the 62-48 win against the Wolfpack last year.
NC State cornerbacks Dontae Johnson, a senior, and Juston Burris, a redshirt sophomore, will both be battling against Watkins, but the Tigers don't have a second weapon with DeAndre Hopkins going pro a year early.
2. While Watkins provides the flash, senior quarterback Tajh Boyd and new senior running back Roderick McDowell will need to be contained in the ground game. Boyd can extend plays with his scrambling, but would rather throw downfield.
The 5-9, 195-pounder McDowell is a slasher who has rushed for 175 yards on 30 carries this season. He has tallied 849 yards and seven scores on 159 carries in his career.
Clemson is going to run plays at a rapid clip with Boyd orchestrating and McDowell the top guy when the Tigers need some tough yards to get first downs. McDowell rushed for 132 yards on 22 carries versus Georgia.
The spread offense isn't easy to stop, but coaches often say that defensive players "need to do their job and trust the defensive call." NC State junior defensive tackles T.Y. McGill and Thomas Teal, fifth-year senior defensive end Darryl Cato-Bishop and redshirt junior defensive end Art Norman will have to get after Boyd, but also be aware of his wheels and that they'll slip the ball in to McDowell.
3. Georgia's offense gashed the Clemson defense for 545 yards on 70 plays, with senior quarterback Aaron Murray passing for 323 yards and sophomore running back Todd Gurley rushing for 154 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries. Gurley ripped off a 75-yard touchdown in the first quarter.
NC State will have to balance playing its up-tempo brand of offense, but still ensure the defense gets some rest. Redshirt junior signal-caller Pete Thomas will be put to the test against Clemson's fast front seven, which includes a pair of North Carolina natives at linebacker who are one-two in tackles — senior weakside linebacker Spencer Shuey and junior middle linebacker Stephone Anthony.
The Clemson secondary was torched by NC State quarterback Mike Glennon last year, and Murray showed some weaknesses remain. Glennon passed for 493 yards and five touchdowns in last year's 62-48 loss.
Three Questions With Clemson Head Coach Dabo Swinney
What will it be like to play at NC State on Thursday night?
"We're excited about having a little not really open date for us, because we play on Thursday night. We have to practice this weekend. But it is good to have a little extra time to get some of these guys healed. Recovering from a tough camp and a very, very difficult opener with Georgia.
"We're really happy to be 2-0 right now. But got our biggest challenge coming up here against NC State. Huge, huge game conference-wise, division-wise. They've obviously got a new staff up there. Presents some challenges from an unknown standpoint.
"But their offense, they're very dynamic. Do a lot of similar things that we do. Been impressed with what I've seen so far with them on film, how they're using their personnel."
What are your impressions of NC State's defense?
"Very, very big up front. Defensively probably the best defensive line we've played. Very active, very fast off the ball. They play incredibly hard.
"We're going to have to have our 'A' game when we go on the road. That's always a challenge. But looking forward to going up to Raleigh next Thursday."
Do you bring out Florida State's visit to NC State's last year, because that was also a Thursday night?
"Shoot, we got our own problems. We went up there last time and got our tails handed to us. We don't have to look any further than ourselves.
"It's a very difficult place to play. Our last experience up there was not good. We played one of our worst games of the year that year, and we won the league. It was a very disappointing night. I think we had about five turnovers, I believe, three of them inside our own 20. That's a recipe for disaster. That's what it was.
"We'll have to play much, much better to have a chance to win this game."
Three Questions With NC State Head Coach Dave Doeren
How scary does Clemson appear to be on offense?
"They're very good. Obviously, [they're] not ranked in the top 10 in the country without having great players and great coaches. We know we're up for a very, very good football team coming in here.
"I think they return more starters and lettermen than anyone in the league, so they have experience on top of talent. So we're going to have to play our best. I know our guys are excited about the challenge."
Some of the weapons they have, quarterback Tajh Boyd and wide receiver Sammy Watkins and so on, is it more of a matter of containment?
"Yeah, well, first thing you've got to do is not give up big plays. You have to contend routes and tackle well in space. We've got to shed blocks and get more people to the ball. But they are going to make plays, like you said. To win the football game, they can't be explosive plays that lead to points.
"We've got to be able to keep lining up and play and make some plays. We've got to be opportunistic on defense this week and continue to force turnovers. That is one thing we've done well for two weeks and we've got to continue to do that.
"He [Boyd] is a Heisman candidate for a reason. He has a great arm, he's very savvy back there and makes good decisions. They run him when they need to. They have a designed running game in the red zone and short yardage. He'll do some things on his own and scramble around. You have to know where he is and contain him."
How does Clemson's experience help them?
"They are a team with 19 starters back and a bunch of lettermen. They have all their coaches and have been together a long time. They have a lot of install.
"They have been able to put in their defense for multiple years and offense for multiple years. They have a lot of plays you have to defend and great depth."