RALEIGH — No one touched Devin Leary. No, the N.C. State quarterback, for a couple of moments Saturday, wasn't under pressure from the Clemson defense on this first down late in the first quarter. But perhaps nearly 13 minutes of the Tigers walloping his Wolfpack had planted a seed of doubt in Leary's head.
He scanned the field. He surveyed the defense. Then he dropped the ball.
Tyler Davis, Clemson's freshman defensive tackle, gobbled it up and was promptly mobbed by his teammates. The Tigers rolled into Raleigh on Saturday and left behind a reckoning of epic proportions, a 55-10 rout perhaps best encapsulated by the sequence beginning with Leary's puzzling drop. Two plays later, running back Travis Etienne was alone in the end zone after giving the Tigers a four-score lead with a 19-yard rushing touchdown.
The Tigers, sporting their championship orange pants, clinched the ACC Atlantic Division title with the win, given that Wake Forest fell to Virginia Tech earlier in the day. Clemson, of course, has much greater ambitions. And in so thoroughly picking apart N.C. State on Saturday, the Tigers, ranked No. 5 in the first College Football Playoff poll, demonstrated the full reach of their power on a day that No. 3 Alabama and No. 4 Penn State suffered their first losses of the season.
So out of hand was the battle between ACC rivals that late in the second quarter the Tigers lined up in a jumbo package and quarterback Trevor Lawrence handed the ball off to offensive lineman John Simpson. The 6-4, 330-pound senior who played at Fort Dorchester High School, rumbled in to the end zone from one yard out, earning a hug from coach Dabo Swinney as he returned to the sideline.
The victory marked Clemson's 25th in a row, which is the longest active overall win streak in the nation.
"That's what we really care about more than anything, is consistency," Swinney said. "That's why winning the national championship is not a goal for us. It's a byproduct. It can happen. But sometimes there are things you don't control."
The annual matchup between Clemson and N.C State has gotten heated in recent years, most notably in 2017 when Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren erroneously accused the Tigers of violating NCAA rules by having a laptop on the sideline during a game; the computer belonged to a Tigers communication staffer.
Instead of kneeling on their final possession Saturday, the Tigers kept pushing ahead, and running back Michel Dukes scored on a one-yard run with 11 seconds left. Swinney and Doeren shared a brief hug but did not make eye contact after the game. Swinney afterwards scoffed at the notion that it was a "frosty" interaction.
"Dave and I have a great relationship," Swinney said. "That's just a question trying to create something."
The Tigers (10-0, 7-0 ACC) finally allowed N.C State (4-5, 1-4) to get on the scoreboard with 13:04 left in the third quarter, when Zonovan Knight scored on a 53-yard run.
But by then there were more empty seats than fans inside Carter-Finley Stadium.
What went right
Etienne continued his march toward ACC history with a pair of rushing touchdowns, tying former Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson for second with 50.
Lawrence had another big day himself. The sophomore finished 20-for-27 passing for 276 yards and three touchdowns without an interception. He also rushed for 59 yards and a score on eight carries.
"In the past, they've played us close here," Lawrence said. "Just wanted to come out and really focus, be efficient. Think we did a really good job of that."
Clemson outgained N.C. State, 549-285, and recovered three fumbles. Linebacker Chad Smith recorded seven tackles and linebacker James Skalski had five.
What went wrong
Knight's TD run could have shifted the momentum in a more competitive game. But this was not a competitive game. This was Clemson making a statement to, among others, the College Football Playoff committee.
It took Clemson nine plays to reach the end zone. It proved a harbinger of things to come. The Tigers struck first when Lawrence rushed in for the seven-yard score on the first possession of the game. It was the first of four first-quarter touchdowns for the Tigers.
Clemson returns to Death Valley on Saturday for its final home game of the season against Wake Forest (7-2, 3-2 ACC). The Demon Deacons will be looking to get back on track ahead of the postseason after their loss to Virginia Tech on Saturday.