CLEMSON, S.C. — NC State’s game plan against Clemson on Saturday was to stop the run and force freshman Trevor Lawrence to beat the Wolfpack with his passing.
It’s a strategy that worked nearly to perfection. But not exactly the way coach Dave Doeren drew it up.
The Wolfpack succeeded in keeping running back Travis Etienne in check, limiting the ACC’s second-leading rusher to 39 yards on the ground. And Lawrence, with a big assist from a swarming defense that forced three turnovers, did just what State tried to make him do.
Beat it with his passing.
The highly touted quarterback threw for 303 yards and a touchdown to easily outgun his senior counterpart Ryan Finley and lead his third-ranked team to a convincing 41-7 victory against the No. 16 Wolfpack in a battle of unbeaten ACC Atlantic rivals at Memorial Stadium.
“We didn’t come out ready to play,” State safety Jarius Morehead said after his team’s first loss of the season. “It was really surprising. I felt like we had a great week of practice and a great week of preparing for Clemson, and we just didn’t come out and do what we had to do.”
The Wolfpack (5-1, 2-1 ACC) had come close to knocking off the three-time ACC champions in each of the last two renewals of the old Textile Bowl, including a heartbreaking overtime loss in its most recent trip to Death Valley — a game in which Kyle Bambard missed a potential game-winning field goal at the end of regulation.
This one, however, was over almost before the sellout homecoming crowd of 81,295 had settled back into its seats after the Tigers made their iconic run down the hill from Howard’s Rock.
Clemson (7-0, 4-0) took just nine plays after the opening kickoff to roll down the field for the game’s first touchdown. It got into the end zone again on its third possession before breaking things open with a pair of scores in the final 46 seconds of the half.
Lawrence was responsible for most of the damage.
State’s aim, Doeren stated earlier in the week to the chagrin of Tigers fans on social media, was to put the freshman under duress in just his third career start by hitting him as often as possible and forcing him into making bad decisions.
It was a sound strategy in theory, but not in execution. The Wolfpack put only one solid hit on him all day, a first half sack by linebacker Germaine Pratt, giving him plenty of time to sit in the pocket and pick State’s secondary apart.
Lawrence completed 21 of his 29 passes for 244 yards over the opening two quarters and was 26 of 39 for the game. Clemson outgained State 471-297.
“They protected very well,” Doeren said. “We didn’t win enough one-on-one blocks in the pass rush. Their O-line did a better job than we did.”
Clemson also helped keep Lawrence on his feet by having him get rid of the ball before State’s rushers could get to him.
“He was getting the ball out fast, quick release,” defensive end Darian Roseboro said. “I don’t give him three seconds that he was back there and he was already throwing it. At the end of the day, we knew what they were going to do. We just didn’t execute.”
While Lawrence was busy showing off his credentials as a prolific passer, another future NFL draft pick was suffering through the most frustrating game of his three-year Wolfpack career.
Finley, who came into the game as the ACC leader in passing yardage per game, threw for just 156 yards — less than half of his season average of 324 — and was intercepted twice.
Part of his problem was a talented Clemson defensive front that, despite sacking him only once, rarely gave him time to look downfield for open receivers. When he did put his passes where he wanted them, balls that were caught against Georgia State, Marshall and even ACC foes Virginia and Boston College were routinely batted away by Tigers defensive backs. They recorded four pass breakups and those two interceptions.
“We just never got into a rhythm and that hurt us, because we’re a rhythm offense,” Finley said.
As dominant as Clemson was, the Wolfpack didn’t help itself by committing multiple presnap penalties, going 2 for 12 on third-down conversions — a stat in which they led the ACC at 60.9 percent coming into the game — and failing to cash in on scoring chances while the outcome was still in doubt.
The most glaring of those missed opportunities came late in the first quarter when with State trailing just 14-0, the usually sure-handed Kelvin Harmon dropped a pass that at the very least would have gone for a big gain and could potentially have been a touchdown.
Only a nine-yard run by Reggie Gallaspy on the first play of the fourth quarter, with Clemson ahead 31-0, prevented the Wolfpack from suffering their first shutout loss since a 41-0 shellacking by the Tigers on this very same field in 2014.
“We just didn’t bring our best game today,” said fellow wide receiver Jakobi Meyers, who had eight of his team’s 22 receptions for 61 yards. “When you come into a stadium like this and a team like this you’ve got to come with all you’ve got, and I don’t think we showed up like we usually do.”
That, more than the final margin or the damage the loss did to State’s ACC championship hopes, was the most disappointing aspect of the game for Doeren.
“I thought we were going to play a heck of a game and we didn’t,” he said. “It didn’t go away. It just kind of got away from us.”