Already No. 4 in the College Football Playoff rankings, the Clemson Tigers took control of their destiny in the ACC Atlantic Division with a hard-fought 38-31 road win against the No. 21 North Carolina State Wolfpack at Carter-Finley Stadium on Saturday.
NC State appeared to convert a 4th-and-10 to the Clemson 3-yard line with 18 seconds remaining, but the officials called the Wolfpack for an illegal-shift penalty. Quarterback Ryan Finley's final pass was picked off by K'Von Wallace to seal the Tigers' win.
Following a stunning 27-24 loss to Syracuse in Week 7, the defending national champions have bounced back with a solid win over Georgia Tech and a key victory over the Wolfpack in Week 10.
The Tigers are 6-1 in conference play and have one more ACC game against the Florida State Seminoles next Saturday.
Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant's accuracy was off all day, leading to his worst single-game completion percentage (52.6) of the season. Lauren Brownlow of 99.9 The Fan found the humor in some of those struggles:
Lauren Brownlow @lebrownlow
That was Kelly Bryant's first completion. His 1-of-6 start is a really nice homage to the basketball team as their season starts soon2017-11-4 20:14:01
Despite ugly moments in the passing game, Bryant made his presence felt in other ways. He put up 88 rushing yards and was one of three Clemson players who combined to run for 224 yards. Tavien Feaster broke the big one for 89 yards in the third quarter to help give the Tigers a 31-21 lead.
ESPN Stats & Info noted Feaster's run was historic:
ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo
Tavien Feaster: 89-yard TD run Tied for 3rd-longest rush in Clemson history Longest since Derrick Witherspoon in 1993 vs Maryland2017-11-4 22:28:49
Finley has been terrific all year for NC State, but his dominance against a Clemson defense that came into Saturday ranked sixth in the nation with 13.1 points allowed took him to another level.
NFL draft analyst Benjamin Allbright had this to say about Finley:
Benjamin Allbright @AllbrightNFL
Ryan Finley is massively underrated nationally.2017-11-4 20:38:01
The junior quarterback had 12 touchdowns and one interception in 285 attempts heading into Saturday.
Per PFF College Football, Finley was putting up excellent numbers compared to his fellow draft-eligible quarterbacks:
PFF College Football @PFF_College
A newcomer to our top draft-eligible QB list - Ryan Finley has had a great 2017, see what our analysts have to say: https://t.co/mNy3JiQPaX https://t.co/3tLPXKJ6gm2017-10-27 13:31:07
Clemson slowed Finley after he started 15-of-15, as he completed 16 of his final 35 attempts and had two interceptions to go with three touchdowns.
In the fourth quarter, Clemson's defense gave the team the boost it needed while it held a 31-28 lead. Finley stared down his receiver on a slant route, allowing Ryan Carter to jump it for an interception.
Bryant saved his biggest play for the most important moment. Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney went for it on the ensuing 4th-and-5 from NC State's 22, rather than attempt a field goal to extend the lead to six points.
Hunter Renfrow caught Bryant's pass just short of the first down, but he fought off an NC State defender for a 16-yard gain. Bryant ran in for a one-yard touchdown to seal the win with 6:31 remaining.
Former Clemson star Shaq Lawson offered one possible explanation for Swinney's decision:
Shaq Lawson @Shaq_Lawson90
Yea Clemson need a new kicker asap2017-11-4 21:15:01
Alex Spence, who entered the game 3-of-7 on field-goal attempts in 2017, missed a 39-yard try at the end of the first half.
SB Nation's Bud Elliott had his own take on Swinney's decision to go for it on fourth down:
Bud Elliott @BudElliott3
Dude gets it. Kicking FGs is the ticket to losing close. https://t.co/4rU5VgSixf2017-11-4 22:42:56
Whatever Swinney's motivation was in that moment, it worked out, and Clemson is on a path to the College Football Playoff.
Things are set up perfectly for Clemson to play in the ACC Championship Game for the third straight year. Florida State (3-5 overall; 3-4 in ACC) hasn't played anywhere near its preseason expectations, and the Tigers will host next week's game against the Seminoles.
North Carolina State has taken Clemson, the best program in the ACC, to the limit each of the past two years. It doesn't yet have a win to show for all of that work, but head coach Dave Doeren has the Wolfpack trending in the right direction.