Clemson Tigers vs. N.C. State Wolfpack: Complete Game Preview
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Last week’s results: No. 3 Clemson (2-0) beat South Carolina State 52-13.
N.C. State (2-0) beat Richmond 23-21.
Most important storylines of the week
1. Can Clemson put 2011 behind?: Two years ago, the Tigers rolled into Carter-Finley Stadium utterly uninspired after clinching the ACC Atlantic Division title a week earlier against Wake Forest. It showed, too. Clemson committed four turnovers in an ugly 37-13 defeat at N.C. State’s hands. It was part of a larger slide that saw the Tigers go 2-4 over their final six games, finishing with a dismal 70-33 Orange Bowl loss to West Virginia.
The core of that 2011 team is now a standout upper class: Clemson played a nation’s-most 29 freshmen that season. That loss has been brought up repeatedly over the last week-plus with the belief being that a more mature team will avoid such a pitfall.
“It was a disappointing game,” said senior quarterback Tajh Boyd. “We didn’t handle business when we went up there. We’d just clinched the division, and we could have gotten a little lax. We didn’t know what to expect when we went up there.
“I felt we weren’t a very mature team in that situation. We went out there and turned the ball over. They were fired up and ready to play. It’s something we have to be ready for this year.”
2. How will Clemson handle the loss of Charone Peake?: The Tigers’ wide receiver corps took a major blow during the off week when junior Peake, the No. 2 wideout behind Sammy Watkins, suffered a torn ACL during a non-contact drill.
Versatile junior Adam Humphries (seven receptions, 53 yards) will move into a starting role, but the burden will be greater for all six remaining healthy scholarship receivers. Junior Sammy Watkins (nine catches, 146 yards, 1 TD) will remain the top dog, but others like junior Martavis Bryant (four receptions, 87 yards) also must contribute more.
In addition, redshirt freshman Germone Hopper, who had six catches for 66 yards and two touchdowns against S.C. State, will be leaned on more heavily, and freshmen T.J. Green and Mike Williams will see their development accelerated.
“They’ve had some really good practices,” Boyd said. “They have to grow up. It’s not that they want to grow up. They need to grow up.”
3. Can Clemson stop N.C. State’s running attack?: The Wolfpack feature a large, physical line, and while new coach Dave Doeren has a fast-paced offense, he likes to run. The Pack averages 212.5 rushing yards per game, fourth in the ACC. Freshman Matt Dayes averages 63.5 rushing yards per game, while junior Tony Creecy averages 51.5. Quarterback Paul Thomas is not afraid to run, either; he averages 22.5 rushing yards per game.
Clemson yields 154 rushing yards per game, ninth-best in the ACC. While Dayes and Creecy are not of the caliber of Georgia’s Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, the Pack will try and establish their offense with a solid ground game, and the Tigers’ front seven must be prepared.
Time: 7:30 p.m. ET, Thursday
Place: Carter-Finley Stadium, Raleigh, N.C.
Radio: Clemson and N.C. State radio networks (regional); ESPN (national)
Spread: Clemson -13.5 via VegasInsider.com
*Unless noted, all quotes in this story were gathered first-hand by the author.
Clemson Keys to Victory
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1. Enjoy the Thursday night lights: Clemson still smarts from the 37-13 beating the Wolfpack laid on it here two years ago. The Tigers are 2-9 on ESPN Thursday night games since 1998; last season’s 42-13 win at Wake Forest broke a three-game ESPN Thursday losing streak.
The only previous win was a 31-10 rout in 2005 at N.C. State. Clemson is well aware of its Thursday night history, although last fall’s Wake Forest whipping did plenty to exorcise those ghosts. Carter-Finley should be loud and excited for the national spotlight, and Dabo Swinney’s bunch must show up enthusiastic.
2. Avoid the big play: Clemson’s defense under Brent Venables has improved, but allowing big plays remains a concern. The Tigers yielded a 77-yard touchdown run to Georgia’s Todd Gurley and touchdown receptions of 51 and 63 yards to South Carolina State’s Tyler McDonald. On the road, “chunk” plays, as Venables calls them, can swing a game’s momentum. If the Wolfpack score, they must earn it and keep the crowd out of the game.
3. Bottle up Pete Thomas: N.C. State’s quarterback entered the season opener after Brandon Mitchell suffered an ankle injury and has thrived since. He averages 247 yards of total offense per game, fourth in the ACC, and is capable both running and throwing. If the Colorado State transfer gets loose on the ground, N.C. State’s offense will benefit. The Tigers need to keep Thomas contained and put pressure on him.
N.C. State Keys to Victory
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1. Force turnovers: Two years ago, the Wolfpack forced a pair of turnovers in short succession in the second quarter and cashed in both, leading to a 27-0 run and a 37-13 victory. N.C. State collected four turnovers that day.
Clemson senior quarterback Tajh Boyd is far more mature than the sophomore who struggled here two years ago, but if the Pack can get turnovers, it could prove a crucial momentum swing.
2. Contain Sammy Watkins: Watkins didn’t play here two years ago while nursing a sprained shoulder, and Clemson’s offense suffered as a result. He is one of the nation’s most explosive offensive players and will carry an even bigger load thanks to the season-ending knee injury sustained by No. 2 receiver Charone Peake.
If the Pack can press and shadow Watkins, it’ll increase the pressure on his other, less experienced teammates.
3. Keep the ball: The best way to combat Clemson’s fast-paced offense is to play keep-away. Ask South Carolina, which kept the ball for 40 minutes of last November’s 27-17 victory, allowing Clemson to run only 19 offensive snaps after halftime. Long, drawn-out drives wearing down the Tigers defense are the key.
If N.C. State can move the ball consistently on the ground, its hopes of an upset will dramatically increase.
Clemson Players to Watch
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1. Junior WR Adam Humphries: Humphries is perhaps Clemson’s steadiest receiver, a versatile pass-catcher capable of playing all three wide receiver spots. He has five career starts but will be thrust into the spotlight following Charone Peake’s season-ending knee injury.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney raved about Humphries this week, noting his speed and steadiness in saying he’d play in the NFL if he stayed healthy. For now, he must provide Tajh Boyd a consistent, capable passing game target.
2. Junior DT Grady Jarrett: The 6’1”, 295-pound junior is developing into one of the ACC’s top defensive tackles. He is a stout run-stopper and is the Tigers’ third-leading tackler through two games with 13 tackles, including 1.5 for loss. He’ll be key against the Wolfpack’s stout ground game.
3. Senior QB Tajh Boyd: Boyd admitted he didn’t play as well as he’d like against S.C. State, completing 14 of 23 passes for 169 yards. The ESPN spotlight will be on the Heisman Trophy candidate, and a big game on national TV can only help his campaign.
N.C. State Players to Watch
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1. Junior QB Pete Thomas: Thomas started 21 games at Colorado State and lost a preseason quarterback competition, but after Brandon Mitchell suffered an ankle injury which will sideline him at least six weeks, he stepped in capably. Thomas averages 247 yards of total offense per game, ranking fourth in the ACC. He can throw or run for a first down and is a solid leader.
2. Senior WR Quintin Payton: Payton led the Wolfpack with 798 receiving yards in 2012 and is a native of Anderson, S.C., just 15 miles from Clemson. He’ll be motivated to play against his hometown program.
3. Junior DE Darryl Cato-Bishop: Cato-Bishop is among N.C. State’s most experienced players; he has started 24 games, more than any other player on the Wolfpack’s roster. He is a talented pass-rusher who was among the ACC’s sack leaders in 2012 with 5.5 sacks.
What They Are Saying
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“They kicked our butt up there two years ago. That is one of the most miserable games that I have ever been through. We didn’t even give ourselves a chance. They played on a 20-yard field, and we played on a 100-yard field. Not a good recipe.” — Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, on the Tigers’ last trip to N.C. State in November 2011.
“We don’t really get caught up in all that. When we play, who we play or where we play really has nothing to do with it. Let’s just focus on what we have to do to win the game. We will play on Tuesday because it doesn’t matter. Here is what we have to do to win the game and none of the rest of that matters. I do think it is great that we get to showcase our team and our university on national TV. Whenever you get that opportunity I think it is a positive.” — Swinney on playing a Thursday night game.
“I don’t think that if we were ranked 47th it’d be as big of a game. It’s a credit to what we’re trying to do as a program, to make strides every year. You have to handle it in stride. You’ve gotta love it. I love seeking things out as well. If you go out there as the hunted, you go out there and you eat, that makes it that much better.” — Tajh Boyd, on having opponents like N.C. State target a top-5 team on their schedule.
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There was a time, not too long ago, when a game like this on Clemson’s schedule would induce dread. Clemson was notorious for playing down to opponents, with its last trip to Raleigh in November 2011 the biggest example.
Actually, it might have been the last example. Clemson has not lost to an unranked opponent since falling to the Wolfpack, a sign Dabo Swinney’s quest to improve his players’ overall focus is bearing fruit.
The Tigers are favored by nearly two touchdowns for a reason: They’re a more talented team on both sides of the ball, and N.C. State needed a late field goal to escape Richmond 23-21 in its last game.
If Clemson takes the memories of its last trip to Raleigh to heart, this one shouldn’t be all that close. Clemson 38, N.C. State 21.