Season-defining game vs. Clemson awaits Wolfpack

The Tigers’ defense is as good as ever, but their offense has struggled ahead of the trip to Raleigh

Running back Zonovan Knight and the Wolfpack will host Clemson on Saturday in the biggest game of NC State's season. (Karl B. DeBlaker / AP Photo)

The Mississippi State game was a major downer for NC State in more ways than just the final score. But in the grand scheme of the 2021 football season, the Wolfpack’s 24-10 loss in Starkville two weeks ago amounted to little more than a missed opportunity and an experience from which to learn.

The Wolfpack will have a chance to put that lesson to practical use when it hosts its annual ACC Atlantic Division showdown against No. 9 Clemson on Saturday at Carter-Finley Stadium.

And this time, it won’t just be for another shot at making a program-defining statement.

The game will also go a long way toward determining whether State is finally ready to mount a serious challenge at dethroning the six-time defending league champion Tigers.

“Anytime you get to play a team like this, that’s been the gold standard in our league, it’s a great opportunity for your football team,” coach Dave Doeren said Monday during his weekly meeting with the media. “I look forward to it and, more than anything, just being a part of what our team is doing. They’re really focused on playing one rep at a time right now.”

Clemson (2-1, 1-0 ACC) has looked vulnerable during the early going this season as it works to find a rhythm while replacing several key players — including quarterback Trevor Lawrence, the top pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, and Travis Etienne, the ACC’s all-time leading rusher.

Not only did Clemson lose its opening game against Georgia in Charlotte, but it also needed a late goal-line stand to escape a stunning upset at the hands of 27-point underdog Georgia Tech at home last week.

Lawrence’s replacement, D.J. Uiagalelei, has led his team to just two offensive touchdowns in two games against FBS opponents while the ground game has yet to gain its stride with Raleigh native Will Shipley as the featured back.

Despite those struggles, the Tigers continue to be the team to beat in the Atlantic Division, at least until somebody actually beats them.

Doeren is confident his Wolfpack are capable of being that somebody, but only if it remains focused on the task at hand rather than its disappointing recent history in the series once known as the Textile Bowl.

“In games like this a lot can be made of the matchups. To me, this is more about us in this game,” said Doeren, who has lost all seven meetings with Clemson. “We just need to do what we did last week and the first week against much, much, much better competition.

“We need to focus on doing our job. We need to focus on our fundamentals. We need to focus on our eyes, on our finish, respecting the game of football and playing it one play at a time. Not letting the momentum swings in the game bother us. Just managing our opportunities and responding to adversity when it happens. And creating more plays than they create.”

The Wolfpack (2-1, 0-0) didn’t handle adversity well in their first serious test against a Power Five opponent.

Despite coming into the Mississippi State game with high hopes following a 45-0 shutout of South Florida in its season opener, State saw its confidence take an early hit when the Bulldogs’ Lideatrick Griffin ran the opening kickoff back 100 yards for a touchdown.

The team never fully recovered from the early setback. To make matters worse, State also lost two of its top defensive players — linebacker Payton Wilson and safety Cyrus Fagan — to season-ending injuries in the game.

The Wolfpack managed to get some of their mojo back last Saturday by rolling to another lopsided victory against an overmatched opponent.

While it’s doubtful that the 45-7 win against Furman will have any appreciable impact on this week’s game, it will at least help put State in a better frame of mind heading into what will likely be the most important game of its season.

“It was great to get back in rhythm after last week,” running back Zonovan Knight said after rushing for 104 yards and a touchdown against the Paladins. “We weren’t really functional as an offense (at Mississippi State), so to get back out there and get a rhythm, it’s definitely giving us a positive mindset going into next week.”

It’s going to take more than just a positive outlook for Knight, quarterback Devin Leary and the rest of the Wolfpack offense to finally get their team over the Clemson hump.

The key to success, Doeren said, is to stay on the attack and not be intimidated by a Tigers defense that is the only one in the country yet to allow an offensive touchdown this season.

“You’ve got to be aggressive when you want to go make big plays. You can’t let them scare you out of trying to force the ball down the field,” the State coach said. “I think sometimes that blitz package, that pass rush and the number of plays they make in their front can get you conservative.

“You’ve got to take the things that are there so you can stay in manageable situations, but you also have to take your shots when they present themselves and you’ve got to make some plays.”

Something they couldn’t do at Mississippi State.