CLEMSON, S.C. — The homecoming crowd at Memorial Stadium stood on its feet and screamed with each play, but fans knew what was coming. Between snaps, they hid their eyes, chewed on nails and watched in horror as NC State’s slow march to the inevitable trudged downfield, 55 yards on 14 plays, draining nearly seven minutes off the clock and the playoff hopes from Death Valley.
They watched, stunned, as a measurement showed NC State had picked up a first down by the length of the football.
They stood, helpless, as the Wolfpack lined up for the game-winning kick — a virtual pooch from 33 yards out.
And then they erupted, cheering what must have seemed like a miracle.
That’s how close it all was to chaos in the ACC. Clemson fumbled away one chance after another, only to be rewarded with NC State’s own ineptitude in crucial moments, and when Tigers corner Marcus Edmond picked off Ryan Finley’s first throw of overtime in the end zone, the emotion that followed — players and fans alike storming the field and piling on top of Edmond — was as much relief as celebration of a 24-17 win.
Clemson’s hold on the ACC Atlantic was just a few yards from disappearing. That kick, as time expired in regulation, would have put NC State in the division’s driver’s seat, with the expected powers — Florida State, Clemson and Louisville — left to watch.
Those few feet that the ball sailed wide to the right of the upright preserved a 45-game winning streak over unranked opponents for the Tigers, too. Fittingly, the last unranked team to beat Dabo Swinney’s crew was also NC State, way back in 2011.
It might have been the end of Deshaun Watson‘s Heisman campaign after he tossed a pick-six to start a disastrous second half, but his bullet into the belly of Artavis Scott in overtime erased all that ugliness.
But more than anything, the chaotic finish means that Clemson marches on, through some absurd combination of talent, luck and divine intervention, still undefeated and atop the ACC.
It was excruciating, but it was a win nevertheless.
But what to make of Clemson now? The doubters already had ample ammunition after a failed Hail Mary preserved a win at Auburn in the opener, and late drives by Watson helped the Tigers escape Troy and Louisville, too. Now there’s this, a game that, by all rights, should have ended with an “L” to a team that already lost a game to East Carolina.
The optimist might look at Clemson’s missed opportunities — three turnovers deep in NC State territory — and suggest the Tigers quite easily could have had a big lead instead of an apoplectic fourth quarter.
The critics might point to all of NC State’s blown chances, too. The Wolfpack missed three field goal attempts in the game and found the end zone just once, despite eight drives into Clemson territory.
Is Clemson good because it keeps winning these close games, or is it a shell of last year’s ACC champs because it keeps playing them?
In the aftermath of Saturday’s mayhem, none of it mattered. It will be for the committee to figure out some time down the road, perhaps after the Tigers have figured things out for themselves. Instead, the team breathed an enormous sigh of relief and lived to fight another day. The fans milled about on the field, still dazed by what they’d just seen, and the team retreated to the locker room to do the same.
This win might have been handed to them on a platter on that final kick, but luck won’t get the Tigers to the playoff. They know that, of course, but for now, they’ve celebrated every heart-stopping roll of the dice.