By Will Vandervort
With a little more than three minutes left to play in the first half Thursday night at Carter Finley Stadium, third-ranked Clemson was faced a fourth-and-one at the NC State 18.
Trailing by a point at the time, it would have been easy for head coach Dabo Swinney to call on placekicker Chandler Catanzaro, who had already kicked field goals of 49 and 40 yards for the Tigers. But with the first half winding down, Swinney knew he needed to get the ball in the end zone.
“Coach asked me if I had a fourth-down call. Absolutely I had a fourth-down call,” offensive coordinator Chad Morris said. “I knew we had it and I felt very confident with it. He asked me. I said, ‘Absolutely.’ And he said, ‘Let’s go!’”
And go the Tigers did. Morris called a quarterback-power—Clemson’s bread and butter on short yardage—and Tajh Boyd power through a gaping hole from center Ryan Norton and fullback Darrell Smith up the middle.
“I really did not hesitate,” said Swinney after Clemson’s 26-14 victory. “I felt like my defense was playing really good. We were down there in pretty good field position and I thought it was an opportunity for us to get one right there, and we were able to get it done.”
The play netted seven yards and moved the Tigers to the 11-yard line, where on the next play Boyd completed the eight-play, 56-yard drive with an 11-yard pass to tight end Sam Cooper, who made a nice diving catch in the end zone to put them up 13-7 with 2:23 to go in the half.
“That was a great catch,” Morris said. “It was good to see him make that catch, and it was a good ball. Tajh threw a good ball right there.”
The touchdown was just the thing the Tigers (3-0, 1-0 ACC) needed to get things going. Clemson had moved the football in the first half, but twice long drives bogged down after moving the ball to the NC State 20- and 22-yard lines. Both possessions ended with Catanzaro’s field goals.
“It’s all about getting into a rhythm and getting into a groove and getting a feel for the game,” Morris said.
NC State (2-1, 0-1) tried to keep the Tigers from getting a feel for the game by getting into Boyd’s mind. The Heisman Trophy candidate struggled to that point in the game as NC State’s defense confused him with looks Clemson had not seen on film.
“We knew they were going to do some things we had not seen because they had a couple of weeks off,” Morris said.
Though Boyd finished the first half 15-26 for 144 yards, he was sacked twice and pressured countless times. He also had trouble reading the defense on zone-read plays and missed receivers Adam Humphries, Martavis Bryant and Sammy Watkins on what could have been easy touchdown passes.
“It is uncharacteristic of him to miss those throws,” Morris said. “I think he was trying and pressing too hard. That’s okay. I think we learned a valuable lesson and it’s good. I just kept telling him on the sidelines, ‘Hey man! You are our guy. We are going to keep working through this, keep staying on it and it will come.’”
Boyd said he wasn’t sure what the issues could have been in the first half, but he was glad they were able to fix them.
“It just wasn’t smooth,” Boyd said. “I don’t know if it was anxiety or having twelve days off. We just were not in rhythm as much as we wanted to be. We came back in the second half and did some great things, but for us, what we want to accomplish, we want to go out there and move the ball on each drive.”
In the second half, the offense did do some great things. Boyd completed 9-11 passes for 100 yards, including touchdown passes of 30 and 15 yards to Martavis Bryant that put the game away.
“The players have to feel it and I felt like they started to get in that rhythm in the second half,” Morris said. “I felt like that the last couple of drives of the game. That’s the only time I felt like those guys really kind of got into a groove and got comfortable.”
And it all started with that fourth down-and-one play from the NC State 18 late in the first half.
“What was the cause of that before we got going? Maybe it was the long layoff or whatever it might be. Regardless, Tajh got to feeling comfortable and that was good to see. It was good to see him and the offense bounce back,” Morris said.