Clemson hasn’t been elite that long. It’s a new thing that could very easily vanish into thin air just as quickly as it appeared. This season in the Clemson program will not last forever, either. Just ask Notre Dame, or Michigan State, or Stanford, or USC. It takes an eternity to build, but only a moment to destroy.
The lofty perch currently occupied by Dabo Swinney’s football team experiences quite a bit of turnover. Programs bounce up and down from the top of the college football heap often. It’s one thing to climb and another thing to fight off other climbers. Everyone else beneath Clemson is scratching and clawing to knock it off so another team can take its place. The cycle never ceases.
NC State isn’t good enough to replace Clemson at the top of the mountain, but it mounted a charge on Saturday to try to at least remove the Tigers from that lofty perch. It was a valiant effort, one that took the Wolfpack right to the precipice of a place no unranked team had been in 42 consecutive games and no road team had been in 19 consecutive games—the winner’s circle in a game against Clemson.
But the team in red could not seal the deal, even given ample opportunities to do so. On five separate occasions during Saturday’s game, the Wolfpack had possession of the football with a chance to take the lead. Here’s what happened on each of those possessions:
- The Wolfpack started the game with the ball and drove 49 yards in nine plays. After a drive that took 4:05, Kyle Bambard—a frequent participant in this space—missed a 43-yard field goal after a pair of false starts pushed the State offense backwards ten yards.
- With 9:04 left in the first quarter, the Wolfpack got the ball back after Wayne Gallman’s fumble. They moved the ball to Clemson’s 19, then committed two penalties and punted on 4th-and-35.
- After Tyshon Dye fumbled at the goal line early in the third quarter, NC State went three-and-out on a drive that pushed them back three yards. That drive included two false start penalties.
- The Mike Williams fumble inside the 5 gave the Wolfpack the ball, and the subsequent return put it at Clemson’s 26-yard line with 7:07 to play in the third quarter. NC State had a 1st-and-goal at the 9, then kicked it into reverse, backing up 11 yards before Christian Wilkins blocked Bambard’s 37-yard field goal.
- In regulation’s final drive, the Wolfpack ran 14 plays and accumulated 55 yards before Bambard missed from 33 yards away. Quarterback Ryan Finley took a weird sack for a loss of four yards right before the ill-fated kick.
The evidence is abundantly clear. Five times NC State had a chance to grab the game by the neck and seize it and own it. Five times the Wolfpack failed to do so.
The failure wasn’t simply about the missed kicks. False starts killed momentum. Negative plays killed momentum. The field goal failures were not the problem, but the result of a slew of problems that arose each time victory was staring the Wolfpack in the face.
Clemson wasn’t good at all during Saturday’s game. The Tigers failed to score three times inside the 5-yard line. They gained nearly 500 yards and had 30 first downs, but the performance felt flat because of missed opportunities. Once again, Clemson’s defense was able to muster up enough juice to get stops at critical moments.
Yet, the Tigers won the game when it was there to be won. They made every play necessary. Meanwhile, the Wolfpack blinked when triumph beckoned. They retreated (quite literally) from winning moments, from the start of the game to its conclusion.
One of the things that is becoming more and more apparent as an elite program takes the field in front of our eyes each week is the way that a program’s past so easily becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. One huge win informs the next one, just as one crushing defeat opens up the floodgates for more.
It’s hard to push through a glass ceiling, as NC State found out on Saturday. On the flip side, it’s easy to conjure up a winning moment when that’s all you know, as Clemson did on Saturday and has done time and time again. The circumstances do matter, because the result of that overtime tilt might have been completely different had the Wolfpack found the environment friendlier. It made the climb even steeper and tougher.
There’s a reason Clemson keeps winning while playing subpar football: It’s going to take more than a great effort for a program unaccustomed to finding success in critical spots to knock Clemson off its perch. It will take something truly uncommon, and what NC State had on Saturday was common—the ability to get to the gate without the knowledge of how to walk through it.
Meanwhile, Swinney’s team burst through the gate with authority when the opportunity presented itself. His team had an expectation, while Dave Doeren’s had a hope and a dream. The difference between the two is vast, much farther than the distance between the right goal post and the errant kick that kept Clemson’s perfect season alive.