RALEIGH — Clemson found itself in what felt like a championship setting, and the No. 4 Tigers liked how they handled it.
Quarterback Kelly Bryant ran for two touchdowns and threw for another as Clemson withstood No. 20 North Carolina State for a 38-31 victory Saturday at Carter-Finley Stadium.
“It’s championship football, that’s what it’s all about,” Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said. “Great teams, great environment. It was two teams fighting for the same thing.”
Clemson now controls its destiny in the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Atlantic Division after handing the Wolfpack (6-3, 4-1 ACC) their first league loss.
The Tigers (8-1, 6-1) can clinch a return to the ACC Championship Game by defeating Florida State next week, or if N.C. State loses any of its three remaining conference games.
“I don’t have a magic speech for that,” N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said, describing his devastated team. “It hurts. They’re tough kids and they have grit and they didn’t want to be denied. … (We’ll need) to continue to play hard and finish the season and that is in (our) control.”
Bryant was 20-for-38 for 191 yards through the air and he also gained 88 yards on 20 carries.
Running back/tight end Jaylen Samuels scored a pair of first-half touchdowns for N.C. State, which lost to a Top 10 team for the second week in a row. Wolfpack quarterback Ryan Finley completed 31 of 50 passes for 338 yards and three touchdowns.
Backup kicker Kyle Bambard’s 22-yard field goal for N.C. State with 1:51 left cut the margin to a one-possession game. Clemson recovered an onside kick but had to punt away after the Wolfpack used three timeouts.
N.C. State had the ball at its own 20 with 1:24 remaining. After a fourth-down pick-up, the Wolfpack moved to the Clemson 28 before a fourth-down interception by K’Von Wallace on the game’s final play.
“We’ve got a bunch of guys who grew tonight,” Swinney said. “We’re very fortunate we got out of here with a win.”
Clemson had three third-quarter possessions in N.C. State territory but didn’t score until the third of those. The Tigers grabbed their first lead of the game on Deon Cain’s 12-yard reception from Bryant at the quarter’s 3:31 mark.
Clemson, which is the reigning national champion, came through in clutch situations.
“They didn’t flinch,” Swinney said of his players. “If you’re going to win on the road, you have to overcome adversity.”
Clemson went up 31-21 when running back Tavien Feaster rambled 89 yards on the final play of the third quarter on the first snap following a punt.
The Wolfpack came right back, with Finley throwing 15 yards to Jakobi Meyers with 12:23 to play.
N.C. State regained possession, but Ryan Carter picked off Finley’s pass — only his second interception thrown this season — to give the Tigers possession at the N.C. State 27.
After a fourth-and-5 conversion on Hunter Renfrow’s catch-and-run, Bryant ran 1 yard for a touchdown and a 38-28 edge.
N.C. State compiled 491 yards of total offense, with the Tigers scrambling in several situations.
“We were getting first downs and getting them tired,” Doeren said. “They were fatigued and we had a good rhythm going.”
The first half had a rapid pace of offense before N.C. State settled for a 21-17 lead at the break.
The Wolfpack struck first when Finley threw 40 yards to Kelvin Harmon, who scored the team’s lone offensive touchdown a week earlier at Notre Dame.
Clemson got on the board on Ray-Ray McCloud ‘s 77-yard punt return.
NOTES: Clemson leads the series 57-28-1. … N.C. State’s last victory in the series came in 2011, when Clemson was ranked No. 7. … Clemson has won nine games in a row against Top 25 opponents. … N.C. State RB Nyheim Hines, who left in the first quarter a week earlier at Notre Dame with a sprained ankle, had eight carries for 34 yards. … N.C. State has allowed a rushing touchdown of more than 75 yards in consecutive games. Last week, Notre Dame’s Josh Adams sprinted 77 yards for a score. … Clemson takes on Florida State in its ACC finale next week at home. … N.C. State visits Boston College next week.