Down on his hands and knees, Dabo Swinney slapped the ground with joy at the end of regulation on Saturday as his Clemson team was headed for overtime against N.C. State.
Before the game, the Tigers head coach probably wasn’t hoping for overtime. His group held a 6-0 mark going into the matchup, and the unranked Wolfpack wasn’t even the toughest opponent his squad had shared a field with this season.
In that moment, though, with the score tied 17-17, all N.C. State needed was a 33-yard field goal to hand the Tigers their first ACC loss in two seasons. As kicker Kyle Bambard’s attempt sailed wide right, Death Valley erupted.
A 10-yard touchdown pass from Deshaun Watson to Artavis Scott helped power Clemson to a 24-17 victory in overtime. The win created a memorable moment, but it never should have come to that. Turnovers plagued the Tigers, and it’s not the first time that has happened this season. If Clemson continues to be sloppy, it will be the reason Swinney’s team won’t claim the college football crown.
Saturday’s contest was a crystal clear example of how much takeaways and giveaways can affect the scoreboard. If not for Clemson’s four turnovers, Swinney would have been walking upright as time expired in the fourth quarter, preparing to shake the hand of NCSU head coach Dave Doeren after a convincing win.
The Tigers’ first turnover — a first-quarter fumble by running back Wayne Gallman — was significant mostly because Gallman was knocked out of the game with a head injury and didn’t return. In terms of missed opportunities, the other giveaways hurt even more.
Not listed in the box score as a turnover, Clemson blew a chance to extend its lead to 10-0 when both of Watson’s rushing attempts were stuffed in 3rd-and-goal and 4th-and-goal situations at the 1-yard line.
Clemson managed to take a 10-3 lead into halftime, but the third quarter got off to the worst start possible as Watson threw a pick-6 on the team’s first play from scrimmage. Then, the Tigers encountered more goal-line woes on their next drive as running back Tyshon Dye fumbled on 1st and goal from the 2.
The Tigers’ third drive of the half wasn’t any better. That series ended when receiver Mike Williams hauled in a 17-yard pass and coughed up yet another red-zone fumble at the 8. Wolfpack safety Shawn Boone took advantage with a 70-yard return to the Clemson 26.
All of the mishaps enabled N.C State, which played its best game of the year, to hang around. The No. 3 Tigers needed luck to avoid their first defeat to an unranked opponent since 2011. With Bambard’s miss, they got it.
Clemson’s record remains unblemished, but the offense has been far from perfect. The Tigers turned it over five times in their Oct. 1 triumph over Louisville. They also struggled to put away a mediocre Troy team, in part because they gave the ball away three times.
The talent on Clemson’s roster has made up for the blunders so far. That could change if turnovers once again become a factor against another quality opponent.
The Tigers face Florida State on Oct. 29, and unlike their meeting with the Cardinals, they won’t be playing in the comfort of their own home. Should it stay unbeaten and win the Atlantic Division, Clemson will have three contests separating it from a national championship — the ACC Championship Game, the College Football Playoff semifinal and the national title showdown.
If Clemson is going to be the last team standing come January, it better start taking care of the ball.