The first half of play Saturday at Carter-Finley Stadium wasn’t pretty for fourth-ranked Clemson as it trailed No. 20 NC State 21-17 at halftime with 171 total yards of offense compared to NC State’s 244 yards.
However, the Tigers got a spark of momentum in the first quarter when Ray-Ray McCloud returned a punt 77 yards for a touchdown to tie the game at 7 apiece. It was Clemson’s first punt return for a touchdown since Adam Humphries did it in 2014.
“That’s one thing we talked about (Friday) night,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. “Somebody be the spark in special teams. What a huge play by Ray-Ray and all of those guys covering people up, so that was a huge momentum play in the game.”
The punt return and a much better second half helped the Tigers rally for a 38-31 victory improving their record to 8-1 overall and 6-1 in the ACC. McCloud wore uniform No. 21 last night, which Swinney said he would have put him in a long time ago if he knew he was going to turn into Deion Sanders, an FSU standout in the 1980s who also wore No. 21.
“That’s why we didn’t fire (McCloud),” Swinney said. “That’s why we hung in there with him. I wanted to fire him many times over the last year or so but he grew up, matured and he’s a special talent.”
McCloud was quick to take the attention off of himself and credit others for the success he had in Saturday’s game, where he had a great game on special teams but also played receiver and came in at cornerback in the last possession of the game due to injuries.
“I want to thank God first, give him all the glory,” McCloud said in postgame interviews. “Then I want to thank my teammates for blocking for me. Just giving extra effort.
“During chapel this week they were talking about giving extra effort. Don’t give ‘kind of’ effort, just go out there and give it no doubt, and that’s what we did out there today. I couldn’t do it without them.”
McCloud avoided eight tackles in the return with the help of blocks from Isaiah Simmons, A.J. Terrell, Chad Smith and others.
“Honestly I look for Isaiah Simmons,” McCloud said, “A lot of times Isaiah is looking for the crack back to hit that guy so I can break. He and K’Von (Wallace)… the three of us talk from a distance. Like on the 45-yard line I’m going to let him know I’m taking this one.
“Whether they’re in front of me I’m taking this one. So they just give the extra effort and I saw the whole left side open, so I went left then I saw the hole open on the right side of the field and I went that way and followed Isaiah.”
McCloud has made several mistakes with punt returns in the past but Swinney never gave up on the junior as he has grown and learned over time.
“I just play football,” McCloud said. “Go out there and be you. Your team is depending on you man…so go out there, have fun and just have a short-term memory.
“We talked about short-term memory and just trying to get my technique back together. I obviously don’t practice it 24/7…so I have to work on little things even more.”