Editor's Note: This article was updated on Sept. 26 with information about Clark's surgery.
NC State got its biggest win in over a decade, knocking off Clemson in a double-overtime thriller. Let's look at what we learned about the team on Saturday.
Start Cory Durden
Redshirt freshman defensive tackle C.J. Clark was a late scratch Saturday, taking the field in street clothes on crutches with a brace on his left knee. Clark’s starting role was filled by graduate defensive lineman Cory Durden, and boy did Durden stake his claim to taking that position over entirely. With 6 tackles and 1.5 sacks, Durden put forth the best performance for any NC State lineman this year, and he did so on the biggest stage of his career. The Florida State product came here to make an impact, and he's earned the starting role at defensive tackle moving forward.
Clark announced late Sunday evening that he's undergoing season-ending surgery on his injured knee. In his absence, the coaching staff will undoubtedly turn to Durden to fill in, and his performance against Clemson leaves no doubt that he's up for the task.
Tough times don’t last, tough people do🤞🏾❤️. pic.twitter.com/byuEotOvlj— CeeJay✨ (@cfrmda4) September 27, 2021
Defense proves itself as one of the best
NC State’s defense keeps one-upping itself. After it demolished inferior opponents in USF and Furman and gave up just 17 points to Mississippi State, it put a hobbling Clemson offense out to pasture. It allowed just over 200 yards, forced the Tigers to go 2-11 on third downs and allowed just 4.4 yards per play.
Without star redshirt sophomore linebacker Payton Wilson and starting safety Cyrus Fagan, NC State’s defense ranks No. 5 in the Football Power Index’s efficiency ranks. Much of the credit for that rests with its leader and captain, redshirt junior Isaiah Moore. Moore led the team in tackles and TFLs with eight and two, respectively. He also had a huge pass-breakup which led to an interception.
Despite a struggling performance in which the offense did just enough to keep its counterparts fresh, the defense is why NC State won the game, and going forward, that will continue to be the case.
Special teams not so special
NC State’s special teams were anything but against Clemson. Aside from a single great effort which flipped field from redshirt junior punter Trenton Gill, five of his punts ended in touchbacks meaning the Wolfpack was unable to pin the Tigers deep.
Junior kicker Chris Dunn had a worse day, as he missed all three of his field goal attempts, including a 38-yarder at the end of regulation which would've won the game. His performance seemed less like him and more like Kyle Bambard, as NC State’s upset efforts were nearly sunk by an inability to get three points, but luckily for his Twitter mentions, the team pulled the upset.
This marks the second time the Wolfpack’s special teams underwhelmed against a solid opponent, and that's concerning moving forward.
Yellow flags tortured the offense early on, with NC State huddling a la Ohio State’s tactic against the Tigers last year. It resulted in multiple penalties, forcing the Wolfpack to abandon that idea and after that, things settled down.
NC State had six first-quarter penalties and three in the second, but just two in the remainder of the game. Meanwhile, the Tigers had 13 total including seven in the second half and overtime. Discipline was there when it mattered for the team in red and white, and that led to a win.
Leary puts his clutchness on display
If you call redshirt sophomore quarterback Devin Leary anything, call him clutch. After looking extremely unimpressive through the first three games of the season, he made the plays he needed to and even some that went above and beyond, finishing at 32 for 44 with 238 yards and four touchdowns.
He did it last year on the road against a ranked Pitt team, and he did it against a top-10 team in the country; with the game on the line Leary was diamonds, throwing perfect balls for game-winning touchdowns. Leary has shown he won't shrink in big situations, and despite his issues, that's the type of quarterback the Wolfpack can win with.