CLEMSON — Just by running down North Carolina State's list of returning starters, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney could outline the magnitude of the challenge.
All but a couple return on offense for the Wolfpack. All but a couple on defense, as well.
"We gotta play well, it’s that simple. We gotta play well in all three phases," Swinney said. "If we do that, then we’ll have a chance to win the game. If we don’t, it’s going to be a long day."
As the No. 9 Tigers (2-1, 1-0 ACC) head into their first true road test of the season, a 3:30 p.m. kickoff at Carter-Finley Stadium on Sept. 25, they are still searching for that complete effort. The offense has been all but missing in two out of three games, sans a 49-point outing versus South Carolina State of the FCS ranks.
A dominant defense, which hasn't allowed a touchdown in three games, must be paired with a productive offense at N.C. State (2-1, 0-0), or Clemson may be asking for trouble in its annual Textile Bowl matchup.
Here are four things to watch as the Tigers look to overcome a stiff challenge in ACC play.
Building cohesion up front
The offense's struggles don't rest squarely on the shoulders of the offensive line. D.J. Uiagalelei has missed throws. Receivers have suffered mishaps with drops and mixed-up routes. It's a collective problem.
But the line is in the limelight because Georgia Tech practically dared Clemson to run the ball and the Tigers averaged 3.9 yards per carry. Not a bad average versus a loaded box, but not great if the Yellow Jackets were dropping eight.
Part of the issue is Georgia Tech ran a scheme Clemson's coaches didn't plan for, and it made communication much more difficult for a line that's still building chemistry. N.C. State runs a similar scheme, so consider Georgia Tech a warmup for a Wolfpack defense that holds opponents to 2.8 yards per carry.
"It's one thing to get beat on a block, it's another thing where we aren't targeting properly because we didn't communicate," Swinney said. "Cleaning up our communication is the main thing. These guys are playing hard, this is a group that plays physical, they are tough, their effort is great. If we had guys that didn't care or whatever, it would be different.
"But we gotta communicate better in some areas."
The next step for Uiagalelei
Uiagalelei hasn't been lighting the world on fire, amassing just 475 yards and one touchdown through the air in three games.
But in the third quarter of last weekend's game, the 6-foot-4, 250-pound sophomore was able to build some momentum on the ground, rumbling for chunks of yards. Unfortunately for the Tigers, he fumbled to end a would-be scoring drive. But just seeing Uiagalelei put pressure on an opposing defense — by whatever means necessary — was a step in the right direction.
The question is whether Uiagalelei can keep momentum pointed in the right direction, especially in what amounts to his first true road test in front of an overwhelmingly hostile crowd.
"He didn't play good the first game, got better the second game, just played his best game. Still tons of room for improvement," Swinney said. "That's all you can ask for and that's what you want to see. He's just too talented. At some point, he's going to put it together and those around him are gonna play the way they are capable of playing. And he'll see the fruits of his labor, because there is nobody who plays harder than No. 5."
Leaning on the defense
Clemson's defense has bent this season, giving to the tune of 298 yards last week. But what's constant is the Tigers don't break, as they are the only defense in the country that has yet to allow a touchdown.
But can Clemson continue to lean as heavily on this defense as it has to this point?
"The defense, they are focused on their job. Their job is to go stop people," Swinney said. "We don’t ever go into a game saying ‘Let’s don’t give up a certain (amount).’ Our job, we want to go stop people, that’s always been our mentality around here.
"They have enough on their plate to worry about what’s going on the other side of the ball."
The defense will be tested in this one, for sure. Without starting defensive tackle Tyler Davis (biceps) for the foreseeable future, even more will be asked of Ruke Orhorhoro and Tre Williams alongside Bryan Bresee. The secondary will also be challenged by N.C. State quarterback Devin Leary, who has thrown for 794 yards and six touchdowns thus far.
"Incredibly committed to what they do with their stretch play, misdirections, screens, running boots and throwbacks and shots down the field," Swinney said of N.C. State's offense. "Four starters back with their offensive line, very good up front, and physical. That’s where it all starts for them."
Winning the turnover battle
Clemson and North Carolina State have both had issues with ball security.
N.C. State has fumbled it away twice, along with three interceptions. One of those picks was on an early drive deep in Mississippi State territory, sapping some momentum from the Wolfpack in a 24-10 loss.
Clemson has fumbled the ball an astounding 11 times, and Swinney said it's a "miracle" the Tigers have only lost two.
"That kills drives, it's bad field position, it's just a mess," Swinney said. "That's just the basics of ball-handling and getting the snap, etcetera."
While these are two talented teams, an ability to not shoot oneself in the foot may be a separator in this one.
Clemson 17, North Carolina State 13