RALEIGH, N.C. — There are few narratives in the college football universe more popular than “Clemsoning”.
It’s in the Urban Dictionary, by the way. And it does have a real meaning: “The act of delivering an inexplicably disappointing performance, usually within the context of a college football season.”
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When N.C. State’s Shadrach Thornton scampered for a 21-yard touchdown with 11:03 to go in the second quarter, screams of Clemsoning echoed throughout the Twitterverse in emphatic all-caps.
Gleeful fans of every conference — including other ACC teams — were trying to predict a Clemsoning before it happened. Or, as they saw it, while it was happening.
The Wolfpack were the home team and had all the momentum. No. 3 Clemson looked tentative on offense. N.C. State has upset top-10 teams before at home. This had all the ingredients.
Except it didn’t happen.
“I think that a lot of people were looking for us to come in and have a letdown game or ‘Clemsoning’ type of game,” Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd said, putting air quotes around “Clemsoning” for emphasis, then avoiding what looked like an impulse to roll his eyes. “I’m confident in the type of team we have. I’m confident in the type of players we have. The coaching staff does a great job.
“It wasn’t perfect by any means and it wasn’t pretty by any means, but you’ve got to love going on the road and getting a win.”
Boyd is right. Clemson’s 26-14 win wasn’t pretty. But it didn’t need to be. Clemson took awhile to get going offensively, but the defense held up for much of the first half.
That Thornton touchdown was the moment panic could have set in, because the Clemson offense just couldn’t seem to get into a rhythm. The Tigers had the ball two more times after the N.C. State touchdown and went three-and-out both times. N.C. State, though, followed suit.
With 5:10 to go in the second quarter, Clemson was facing a third and nine. Boyd found one of the ACC’s best receivers in Sammy Watkins for a 28-yard completion to the N.C. State 27-yard line. Facing a third-and-12 to plays later, he found Watkins again for 11-yard completion to the N.C. State 18.
Fourth and a yard, down 7-6, close to halftime. Decision time.
It wasn’t a hard one for Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney.
“Listen, we’re on the road and that’s just confidence in my offensive line,” Swinney said. “I just really didn’t hesitate. I felt like that my defense was playing really (well). We were down in there in pretty good field position. I just thought it was an opportunity for us to get one right there, and we were able to get it done.”
Boyd eventually found Sam Cooper for an 11-yard touchdown pass to cap the drive and give Clemson a 13-7 lead, a score it held going into half. If it’s a run play that’s stuffed at the line or Clemson ends up losing on the road by a few points, Swinney would’ve been the one blamed for the loss. He knew that. He didn’t care.
“Everything might not be perfect, but I think the coach trusts us enough in situations. I think there were a couple other times where it was close and (Swinney) was like, ‘Let’s just go get it done’,” Boyd said. “When it’s a designed quarterback run, I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure I go get it.”
This coach and this quarterback are a perfect match in that way. They believe in themselves, and in ach other. Boyd was visibly frustrated early in the game as he overthrew receivers and took two first-half sacks. There was no panic on the Clemson sideline, though. To the contrary.
Swinney said he urged his staff and his players to stick with the plan. He told offensive coordinator Chad Morris: keep going to Tajh.
“(Boyd) might be down a series here or there, but sooner or later he’s going to get going and I thought he was tremendous tonight,” Swinney said of his senior quarterback. “He ran the ball well too, had some really good tough runs for us but two huge, huge throws.”
It’s not like Clemson’s offense — or just Boyd — turned back into its uptempo self after that play, though. Instead, Boyd became a surgeon, completing 9-of-11 passes for 100 yards and two touchdowns in the second half. It wasn’t explosive, it wasn’t flashy — but it was just what Clemson needed.
Overall, the Tigers won with defense, which is crazy to think about after the 70-33 Orange Bowl loss to West Virginia in 2011.
“Probably the best defensive performance that I’ve seen here in awhile, in a long time since I’ve been here,” Boyd said.
And yes, as the old saying goes, you have to be lucky and good. Clemson was both, as there were a few breaks that went against the Wolfpack, like N.C. State senior wide receiver Bryan Underwood stepping out of bounds midway through the first quarter on his way to a touchdown.
It was a very close call, but one that wasn’t reviewable because the play was blown dead. And two plays later, Tiger defensive end Vic Beasley hit quarterback Pete Thomas for a six-yard loss, forcing a fumble that Clemson recovered. A few plays later, Clemson pushed its lead to 20-7. It felt like an irreversible momentum shift, and it was.
“The turnover was a spark for us,” Swinney said (Clemson committed zero turnovers). “We talk a lot about our plan to win, winning that turnover margin, having a couple more big plays than the opponent, making a difference in special teams, not having critical errors and tonight, the turnover was huge. I thought it was the key spark that kind of lit it for us in the second half.”
And yet, the Clemsoning narrative persists. It will likely continue to, unless the Tigers go undefeated this season or their only loss is to an excellent Florida State team.
In case the concept wasn’t abundantly clear already to the national audience, ESPN’s crew made sure they mentioned it. They even made a graphic to explain to the ignorant what exactly Clemsoning meant. And this was late in the game.
Sure, Clemson got a few breaks in this game. And yes, it seemed at times like the loud Carter-Finley crowd and the pressure of what a loss like this might mean was getting to the Tigers. But they didn’t apologize for the win, or how it looked. They just wanted to go home 3-0.
“You’re going to have your makes and breaks of the game,” Boyd said. “I think though for this offense, we always find a way to go out and make a play when it’s needed. That’s just credit to the guys and credit to the mentality that they have.