NC State defeated the Tigers 27-21 in 2OT to mark the Pack’s first win against Clemson since 2011, a victory 10 years in the making. NC State’s defense made a statement tonight, putting Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei and company in a chokehold early on and never letting up.
It was redshirt sophomore wideout Devin Carter that would score the eventual game-winning touchdown for the Pack, making a miraculous catch on a beautifully thrown ball from redshirt sophomore quarterback Devin Leary.
“If they don’t honor what we’re doing on the perimeter, throw it out there and let those kids make plays.” head coach Dave Doeren said. “And that was the game plan. Devin [Leary] did different plays at different reads, you know, and he did a great job throughout the game”.
Carter’s heroics came after Leary and company were able to turn the tides in the first overtime period. NC State elected to allow Clemson to take the ball first, and the Tigers wasted no time, muscling their way into a 9-yard touchdown pass from Uiagalele to wideout Justyn Ross. The Wolfpack offense was forced to respond with a score of its own, and it did in the form of a touchdown reception by redshirt junior receiver Thayer Thomas.
The ending of this matchup was defined by offensive excellence from the Pack’s unit, but for the entirety of the game leading up to the final moments it was the defense that won this game for NC State. The Pack forced seven three-and-outs against a talent-loaded Clemson offense, with an interception added on top.
After starting out slow on its first drive, Clemson quickly found a groove in its second of the game. A 32-yard dime from Uiagalelei to Ross opened up the scoring. The scoring play came as a result of a boost in field position for the Tigers following a personal foul on junior safety Tanner Ingle, a sight that Wolfpack fans know all too well. Such an early score for the Tigers made it an absolute necessity for the Pack to respond in a timely manner, to ensure that the game didn’t get away from it too soon.
Out of the gate, it wasn’t certain if the Wolfpack offense would be able to penetrate this stout Tigers defense, and doubters were quickly having their beliefs confirmed after NC State stalled out on its first two drives. However, in its third drive of the game, the Pack managed to draw level with the Tigers at 7-7. The Pack’s four-minute, 48-second drive ended in a touchdown pass from Leary to senior wideout Emeka Emezie, who made a phenomenal grab down the side of the endzone.
The offensive blows cooled off quickly in the second quarter, with the game evolving into a battle between defenses. Each team took turns trading defensive blows, with each squad coming away with a defensive turnover before the half.
For Clemson, the turnover couldn’t have come at a better time, with Leary and company looking calm and collected after starting the drive on the NC State 45-yard line with 9:08 remaining in the quarter. Moving the ball all the way down to Clemson’s 38-yard line, heavy pressure on Leary would result in the quarterback losing control of the football and allowing Clemson’s Ruke Orhorhoro to recover the fumble. Fortunately for the Pack, Clemson would be held to a three-and-out, as it was four times in the first half.
The Wolfpack’s takeaway came later in the quarter, with sophomore linebacker Drake Thomas collecting an altered pass from Uiagalelei that was tipped up into the air by redshirt junior linebacker Isaiah Moore. Moore had a massive impact on the Pack’s ability to hold the Tigers to just seven first-half points, with a tackle for loss and two QB hurries.
Moore’s first-half partner in crime, graduate student defensive tackle Cory Durden, was equally crucial to the Pack’s defensive dominance. Durden, who was awarded the starting spot in the absence of redshirt freshman defensive tackle C.J. Clark to injury, wasted no time to make his case for a more permanent role in the starting lineup for the Pack. His 1.5 sacks played a crucial part in shutting down Uiagalelei in a rather important drive for the Tigers that would end in a three-and-out.
Back-to-back sacks for DT Cory Durden in his first start for the Pack!Carter-Finley Stadium is electric.📺: ESPN pic.twitter.com/16D4IgNfAP— NC State Football (@PackFootball) September 25, 2021
Moore would finish the game as the team leader in tackles with eight, with two of those tackles being for loss. Moore was also able to get a hit on Uiagalelei three times which was the most out of anyone on NC State’s defense.
“We want the game to be on us, and that was where it was,” Durden said. “We’re going to show everybody that we’re the best defense in the country. … That was the goal going into this game”.
At the half, the momentum was all in favor of the Pack, which made a statement early that it was here to shut down the highly touted Uiagalelei-led offense. Before the start of the third quarter, NC State boasted 153 total yards of offense to Clemson’s lowly 87 while managing to hold Clemson to 0-5 on third downs in the first half.
As the game moved forward into the third quarter, the Wolfpack defense continued to do its thing. Both of Clemson’s possessions in the third quarter resulted in three-and-outs as the Tigers’ offense continued to struggle against NC State’s constant pressure on Uiagalelei.
While the defense was busy at work, the offense managed to tack on another touchdown on a 12-yard pass from Leary to Carter to put NC State up 14-7. The touchdown play came at the end of a drive that wouldn’t die, with Clemson gifting the Pack 25 yards by way of penalties.
Devin Carter puts the Wolfpack in front! pic.twitter.com/XjhlLqTWI7— Sidelines - ACC (@SSN_ACC) September 25, 2021
Clemson’s offense wouldn’t go down without a fight, however, rallying back early on in the fourth quarter. A drive that was kept alive by a 37-yard rush from Uiagalelei was capped off by a five yard rushing score from running back Will Shipley to bring the score to 14-14.
NC State had plenty of opportunities to prevent this game from going to OT, missing two potential game-winning field goals in the fourth quarter. Junior kicker Christopher Dunn has established himself as a reliable kicker for the Pack, but tonight was certainly not his night. It all started in the closing moments of the second quarter, where Dunn missed a 53-yarder to give NC State a lead going into the break. A field goal from that far away is no easy feat for any kicker, let alone a college one. Despite the miss, Doeren maintained confidence in his guy to go out and try to win them the football game in the fourth.
Dunn’s first attempt in the fourth came from 51 yards out — again, no easy feat for a kicker. The kick would miss, leaving Clemson with 6:14 to work with as it tried to find a game winning score. Fortunately, the Pack’s defense came up big again by forcing yet another three-and-out for the Clemson offense.
Dunn would get his final game-winning attempt of the day in the closing seconds of the fourth quarter. Reminiscent of the closing moments of regulation in the storied 2016 matchup between these teams that have haunted Wolfpack fans in recent years, Dunn had a great opportunity to punch one in from 39 yards out. His kick was no good, forcing his teammates to win the ball game in extra time, which they did in triumphant fashion.
This NC State team has shown incredible resilience in being able to rebound from the embarrassing performance in Starkville, Mississippi two weeks ago. Beating the No. 9 team in the nation has huge implications for this squad moving forward, especially in the ACC standings. The Pack will get a quick intermission from conference play with a matchup against Louisiana Tech next Saturday before closing out its season with seven consecutive ACC matchups.
“The curse is broken,” Doeren said. “I think it was real, and it’s not there anymore. [I’m] just super proud of these young men."