RALEIGH – Dabo Swinney saw a disturbing pattern early on Thursday night. Clemson’s race car attack was sputtering, creeping backward at critical times.
The Tigers’ head coach, red faced as N.C. State’s sea of red-clad fans roared for an upset, gathered his offense during a sideline break.
“He wasn’t yelling,” wide receiver Martavis Bryant said. “He just told to stay focused, to take our time.”
No. 3 Clemson pulled away late but didn’t look like the third-best college team in the world during its 26-14 victory at Carter-Finley Stadium.
The Tigers had to tinker with an offensive line that missed blocks and gave up sacks. Heisman Trophy candidate Tajh Boyd, like a pitcher lacking command, overthrew open receivers twice on deep post-patterns before finding his groove.
Some of the play-calling was odd. Clemson gave up four fourth-down conversions on an N.C. State touchdown drive in the fourth quarter.
The Tigers have four weeks to get ready for No. 8 Florida State’s arrival at Death Valley, and might need that long to get ready. The Oct. 19 showdown looms with ACC championship, Heisman Trophy, national title and major traffic jam implications, not necessarily in that order.
The month-long stepladder:
Next week, Wake Forest. Once a Tiger nemesis, the poor Deacons make for ideal scrimmage fodder.
Oct. 5, at Syracuse. Long trip. Loud dome. Enough distractions to get everyone’s attention.
Oct. 12, Boston College. A home game, but BC is better than Syracuse until basketball season.
Oct. 19. Probably not “GameDay” twice in one year, but bigger than that. Faster, too.
No style points
Clemson isn’t good enough to notch style points, not yet anyway.
“Tajh was frustrated. He was mad at himself,” Swinney said. “Tajh is a perfectionist. That’s the way he is in practice, that’s the way he is all the time. But I just told him, ‘Just go to the next play.’ It’s what I told (offensive coordinator) Chad Morris, ‘Just keep calling the game. We’ll get it going.’”
The Tigers did some good things on defense against N.C. State. So did the Richmond Spiders.
There were some timely Boyd-led conversions on offense, but the Tigers must get the basic knack of consistent production. They were on a 116-play pace after the first quarter, but had only a 3-0 lead to show for it.
Boyd moves his feet well when under pressure, but shouldn’t have to shuffle so often.
After a 6-yard loss on an odd decision to give running back Roderick McDowell the ball to the short side, N.C. State linebacker D.J. Green got in Boyd’s face and let him know about it.
Jameis Winston alert
Even the 52-13 rout of S.C. State on Sept. 7 revealed a few orange issues, including a slower pace than Morris prefers and some missed assignments in the back seven on defense.
“I feel like we were able to correct some of the mistakes we made (against S.C. State) in the game (Thursday night),” linebacker Spencer Shuey said. “We gave up some big plays but as long as we don’t give up big-play touchdowns, we’ll be fine.”
Few teams play the perfect game in September (ask Nick Saban).
But Florida State’s redshirt freshman quarterback Jameis Winston is good enough to make teams pay for even slight mistakes, perhaps good enough to be the best NFL quarterback prospect. The Seminoles last week scored five touchdowns in eight minutes during a 62-7 victory over Nevada.
“We know what we did here,” Bryant said. “And we know what we have to do to get better.”
Pete Thomas, N.C. State’s tall but slow quarterback, showed that if you’re willing to hold the football and take a vicious shot while throwing, you can find open receivers against Clemson.
Winston might not have to hold the ball that long.
Good thing Clemson has four weeks to prepare.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff