RALEIGH, N.C. — We thought we would recognize North Carolina State.
It was the team that stacked stats against inferior foes. It was the team that had not defeated a Division I Bowl Subdivision opponent with a winning record. It was the team Clemson was expected to dismantle Saturday.
However, N.C. State arrived at the Halloween party dressed as a formidable adversary.
The costume included a solid rushing attack.
The Wolfpack carved through Clemson for five yards per carry, the highest rate Clemson has surrendered this season. N.C. State notched three runs that covered at least 20 yards.
The costume included a prudent passing strategy.
The Wolfpack attacked the flats underneath Clemson’s coverage in the first half. Quarterback Jacoby Brissett completed six of his first seven attempts. He also tossed over Clemson’s secondary for a pair of touchdowns passes that each covered at least 28 yards.
The costume included an erratic, yet explosive special teams performance.
N.C. State allowed Clemson to block its first extra point. The Wolfpack missed an additional field goal attempt. Nevertheless, wide receiver Nyheim Hines exploited the deficiency in Clemson’s kickoff coverage for a 100-yard touchdown return. N.C. State gained 200 yards on five kick returns.
Unfortunately for N.C. State, the costume did not include a decent defense.
N.C. State entered the contest ranked No. 3 in the Bowl Subdivision in total defense. The Wolfpack allowed an average of 251.1 yards per game through its first seven contests. Yet, only one of N.C. State’s first six Bowl Subdivision opponents entered the weekend ranked inside the Top 80 in total offense.
Clemson peeled the mask off those padded figures.
The Tigers amassed 623 yards of total offense. Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson compiled a pass efficiency rating of 238.9, more than double the rating N.C. State’s defense recorded through its previous seven games.
N.C. State was ranked No. 15 in rushing defense, allowing 107 yards per game. Clemson running back Wayne Gallman topped that mark alone— through the first three quarters. He finished with 172 of the 240 rushing yards the Tigers tallied.
The 58-0 drubbing Clemson enjoyed at Miami the previous week made Saturday’s 56-41 margin look like an unnerving nail-biter. Yet, expectations can be as skewed as N.C. State’s defensive statistics.
Clemson is expected to be more talented, more deep and more polished than any of its remaining opponents. Clemson is expected to sweep through this final stretch of the regular season and secure a spot in the College Football Playoff.
However, no one should expect a series of shutouts. Clemson will not be able to clear its bench in the third quarter.
Teams have more time, more film and more clues available to craft an effective game plan, like N.C. State did Saturday. Teams will not be intimidated. They will relish the opportunity to knock Clemson off its championship course.
Do not be surprised if Florida State arrives at Death Valley next week with an uncharacteristically competent offense. Do not be shocked if Syracuse, Wake Forest and South Carolina give the Tigers a fight.
Do not be startled if Clemson grinds through the adversity and survives.
On Saturday, Clemson overcame its deficiencies and capitalized on its strengths. The advantages— in personnel and play-calling— may alter weekly, but that formula never does. At this point in the season, style is insignificant to the outcome. The only objective is remaining undefeated, regardless of how that feat is achieved.
It does not have to be pretty. It just has to be perfect.