By Will Vandervort
In the last four years, Clemson has played in some pretty tough environments.
The Tigers have played at Auburn, at Virginia Tech, at South Carolina and at Florida State. Those are some of the toughest and loudest venues in the country to play at. But when they went to Raleigh, N.C., two years ago to play NC State, they were surprised to hear how rowdy Carter Finley Stadium can be.
Though it sits 57,583 fans, Carter Finley has gained the reputation as being one of the tougher environments to play at in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
“I didn’t know that place was going to be that hostile,” Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins said. “Going in there, they just sucked the energy out of everybody. Even the coaches were surprised.”
There should be no surprises this time around for the third-ranked Tigers when they play at NC State Thursday night (7:30) on ESPN.
“This is not just any place we are going,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. “This is a huge, huge challenge with NC State. They have good players and this is a very tough place to win. There is no doubt about that. We know that as well as anybody.
“To be honest with you, we will have to play our best game to this point.”
That is not what the Tigers did in a 37-13 loss there two years ago. Clemson (2-0), which was ranked seventh at the time, turned the football over four times—three from quarterback Tajh Boyd—and fell behind 27-3 by halftime. In fact, the Tigers were down 37-6 until tight end Brandon Ford caught a pass along the far sideline late in the fourth quarter and rumbled more than 50 yards inside the five to set up a Mike Bellamy touchdown.
“If they are up a lot of points and they are getting first downs, it can be a very disturbing place to play,” said Watkins, who sat out the 2011 game do to an injured shoulder. “It is just a little bowl, but it can get pretty loud.”
Linebacker Spencer Shuey remembers how loud Carter Finley Stadium can get, especially when things started to snowball and turnovers and bad special teams play allowed the fans to really get into the game.
“It gets pretty loud. The sidelines are small and you are backed up right against the fans,” he said. “They are into on every snap and the (public address) announcer is into it on every snap. It definitely is a great atmosphere to play in and it can create trouble.”
In recent history, atmospheres like Carter Finley Stadium have not been too kind to Clemson. In fact, Clemson’s current senior class is 1-5 in such atmospheres. The Tigers lone win was a 23-3 victory at No. 11 Virginia Tech in 2011.
“I love playing at home, but at the same time, I love going on the road, too,” Boyd said. “There is nothing like going on the road into a hostile environment.”
It looked like Clemson was going to get a win in Tallahassee, Fla., last year when Boyd and company took a 28-14 lead on the Seminoles early in the third quarter, but a special teams breakdown that led to a 90-yard kickoff return started a snowball effect that allowed FSU to turn a 14-point deficit into a 49-37 win.
“Naturally, that is just how it happens,” Boyd said. “It’s funny on how that goes because the crowd can get real silent and suddenly a big play happens, and then it erupts.”
After that loss at Florida State, the Tigers went on to win seven-straight games, including road wins at Boston College, at Wake Forest and at Duke. And as impressive as those wins were, the atmospheres in those three games were nothing like what they will see Thursday night in Raleigh and later in the year when Clemson goes to Columbia.
“I’m excited about going on the road for the first time. I think you find out a lot about your team when you go on the road,” Swinney said.
With that said, everyone will soon find out what kind of team Clemson truly has because Carter Finley Stadium has always proven to be a tough place to win at.
“It was an extremely a tough place to play,” Shuey said. “Their fans get involved. NC State definitely has that reputation of stepping up to the big games and playing their best. That’s what we are expecting.
“Hopefully, we can go up there this time and play better. We are a more experienced and mature team. Hopefully, if we focus on what we need to do, then we can get the job done.”