RALEIGH — If the gridiron were an inch wider, or opposing flanker Bryan Underwood’s foot was an inch thinner, Clemson’s national title dreams might be zapped at Carter-Finley Stadium once again.
A couple of lucky breaks involving Underwood’s routes down the sideline — one of which was controversial upon seeing replay — spurred the third-ranked Tigers to steal a 26-14 win over host North Carolina State in a nationally-televised Thursday nighter.
“Glad to get that one over with,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said with an exhale and a relieved chuckle. “We can’t load the buses up soon enough, I’m telling you. We’re fortunate to hang in there and find a way to win.”
And it was closer than the score indicates. No. 3 Clemson fans were undoubtedly gnawing on fingernails with a precarious 13-7 lead midway through the third quarter and the normally explosive Clemson offense stuck in neutral.
Once the Tigers (3-0, 1-0 ACC) seized momentum, junior wide receiver Martavis Bryant single-handedly put away the Wolfpack (2-1, 0-1.) The 6-foot-5 Bryant sprang open for a 30-yard play-action deep route, and snatched a fade route away from smaller cornerback Niles Clark in the end zone to stretch a tight game into a blowout.
“We work on that back-shoulder ball every day in 1-on-1s in practice,” Bryant said. “Once you keep doing something, it becomes natural to you.”
Bryant’s first career two-touchdown game came at the perfect time, with both scores coming after a pivotal play nullified a N.C. State touchdown.
Football is a quirky game like any other sport, and it was the dimensions of the field that wiled the Wolfpack. The biggest play of all sent the 57,583 fans in a sea of red seeing red.
Twice on Thursday night, flanker Bryan Underwood took a handoff from quarterback Pete Thomas while in motion, which is called a jet sweep. And twice, Underwood ended up wishing he’d tiptoed a little more carefully.
With 7 minutes, 43 seconds left in the third quarter and N.C. State trailing by six, it opened a drive from its own 17 by handing off to Underwood. He escaped past linebacker Quandon Christian and raced all the way for an 83-yard lead-changing score.
Except the side judge ruled Underwood’s right foot scraped the white paint of the sideline at Clemson’s 47-yard-line, and even though it was impossible to hear over the roar of the crowd, he whistled the play dead.
Video replays in real-time seemed to show Underwood stayed inbounds the entire time, though slowing the tape down frame by frame made the call a little more inconclusive.
“That was right in front of me,” N.C. State head coach Dave Doeren lamented. “He wasn’t out of bounds.”
Either way, by rule, once a play is whistled dead, nothing after that point may be reviewed. Instead of a 14-13 lead, State took the ball near midfield after a 36-yard gain.
“Unfortunately, they blew it dead so we couldn’t review it,” Doeren said. “It cost us some points, but you have to move on from that.”
After the tough break, State’s momentum melted away. Two plays later, Clemson defensive end Vic Beasley strip-sacked Thomas, and the fumble was recovered by linebacker Spencer Shuey.
On the fourth play of the ensuing possession, quarterback Tajh Boyd snapped out of his doldrums, connected with Bryant, and the Tigers could breathe again.
N.C. State also had a chance on its opening drive for an explosive play, but it was on the left sideline that Underwood barely stepped out of bounds on what would have been a touchdown jet sweep. That was ruled an 18-yard run, and the Wolfpack ended up punting.
That’s 14 points North Carolina State, bidding to upset a top 10-ranked Clemson foe for the second time in three years, missed out on due to Underwood’s faulty footwork.
Actually, make it 21 lost points; Boyd threw a would-be pick-6 to cornerback Juston Burris when looking for Bryant, but Swinney had been granted a timeout just before the snap, so the play didn’t count.
“If you’re trying to have a great year, there’s always a few breaks,” Swinney said. “And we got a few breaks, there’s no question about it.”
The Wolfpack mustered conversions on just 3-of-16 third downs against Clemson’s swarming, improved defense. Their final touchdown drive required 23 plays, and was too little, too late.
“Last year, they called us the weaklink of the team,” Beasley said. “We want to be the best. Coach (Brent) Venables is a great defensive coordinator, and he wants no touchdowns on the board.”
Beasley scored his third and fourth sacks of the season, while reserve defensive end Shaq Lawson broke out with 2.5 tackles for a loss. Linebacker Stephone Anthony had a career-best 14 tackles, including two for a loss.
Despite mighty offensive struggles after a 12-day layoff, the Tigers still took a 13-7 lead to the locker room, with the difference being their cold-blooded kicker, Chandler Catanzaro.
He connected from 49 and 45 yards out on a fairly breezy evening, making the fifth-year senior 29-for-30 on field goals in his past 20 games. With three extra points, Catanzaro passed Aaron Hunt and became Clemson’s all-time leading scorer with 330 points in his career.
“I hit them great tonight, I really did,” Catanzaro said. “I trusted it, like I’ve always done, and the 49-yarder especially was really pure, had really good distance and height.”
Boyd finished 24-for-37 with 244 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions in front of a national audience evaluating his Heisman prospects. At the half, he was 15-of-26 with just 5.5 yards per attempt.
“Yeah, he was frustrated. He was mad at himself,” Swinney said. “Tajh is a perfectionist. That’s the way he is all the time. He can’t stand when he feels like he’s made a mistake.
“That boy’s been around a long time; sooner or later, he’s going to get going.”
Bryant had six catches for 73 yards and the two scores, while Sammy Watkins made 10 grabs for 96 yards.
With a realigned offensive line – sophomores Isaiah Battle and Kalon Davis in on the left side – the Tigers commanded their only touchdown drive of the first half, going 56 yards culminating with an 11-yard strike to tight end Sam Cooper, who tore his ACL in Clemson’s spring game on April 13.
Battle was ejected in the fourth quarter for punching an opposing player.
Clemson next plays Sept. 28 in its homecoming game against Wake Forest.