With four weeks to go in college football’s 2017 season, the race to win the ACC’s Atlantic Division has hit its homestretch, and Saturday’s matchup between NC State and Clemson should provide plenty of clarity. In addition to the implications in the conference, CFB Playoff hopes for the Tigers are hanging in the balance. Coach Dabo Swinney’s team checked in at No. 4 in this week’s rankings, but with one loss already this season, Clemson has no margin for error the rest of the way. Every week is now must-win situation for the Tigers.
NC State has been on an interesting journey since last November. Coach Dave Doeren was squarely on the hot seat after a 4-5 record in 2016, but the Wolfpack rallied to finish 6-6 in the regular season and dominated Vanderbilt 41-17 in the Independence Bowl. With 16 returning starters in place for 2017, NC State was considered a wild card team to watch for the top 25 or to contend with Clemson and Florida State for the ACC title. Despite outgaining South Carolina 504 to 246 in the opener, the Wolfpack stumbled to an 0-1 start. But Doeren’s team rebounded with six consecutive victories before last week’s loss in South Bend to Notre Dame. NC State is 4-0 in ACC play this year, accumulating victories against Florida State, Syracuse, Louisville and Pitt.
Clemson’s national title defense began by dominating Kent State 56-3 in the opener, followed by wins over three top-25 teams (Auburn, Virginia Tech and Louisville) and victories against Boston College, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech. The only blemish on the resume for coach Dabo Swinney’s team took place on Oct. 13 in a road matchup against Syracuse. In that game, quarterback Kelly Bryant was limited due to an ankle injury but was knocked out of the game due to a concussion. While the loss knocked Clemson down the rankings in mid-October, the CFB Playoff selection committee correctly identified the Tigers as one of the top four programs headed into November.
Clemson holds a 56-28-1 series edge over NC State. The Tigers are 9-1 against the Wolfpack over the last 10 meetings. NC State’s last victory over Clemson took place in 2011.
Clemson at NC State
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 4 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: Clemson -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Clemson QB Kelly Bryant
We are stating the obvious here, but it’s still worth mentioning: A healthy Kelly Bryant makes a big difference for Clemson’s offense. The junior has passed for 1,582 yards and six touchdowns through eight games. Bryant is also connecting on 67.5 percent of his passes and ranks second on the team with 460 rushing yards. The junior suffered an ankle injury against Wake Forest and was clearly less than full strength against Syracuse in the first half. However, Bryant suffered a concussion at the end of the second quarter versus the Orange. The bye week helped the junior get back to full strength, and he responded with a solid outing in bad weather (22 of 33 for 207 yards and two scores and 67 rushing yards) last week against Georgia Tech.
Bryant isn’t as dangerous as former quarterback Deshaun Watson was for the Tigers, but that level of production was going to be difficult to replicate. However, Bryant has to do a better job of connecting on the screen passes that set up downfield shots. Despite the firepower and talent in Clemson’s receiving corps, this offense has connected on just nine passes of 30 yards or more in 2017.
In Saturday’s matchup, Bryant will be tested by NC State’s standout defensive front, which will put pressure on Clemson’s offensive line that has struggled to protect at times. However, if Bryant has time to throw, the Wolfpack rank seventh in the ACC in pass efficiency defense. The junior’s mobility and ability to make plays on the move will be a critical component for Clemson’s attack on Saturday. After Bryant knocked off the rust against Georgia Tech, the Tigers will be looking for the junior to elevate the offense to another level as the final stretch of the 2017 season approaches.
2. NC State’s Defensive Line
This is the unquestioned strength of NC State’s defense. Led by senior end Bradley Chubb, the Wolfpack own one of the nation’s top defensive lines and limit opponents to just 119.6 rushing yards per game. Notre Dame’s offense (318 rushing yards) was the first team to eclipse more than 135 rushing yards against this unit in 2017. Additionally, this line has helped NC State rank fifth in the ACC in sacks generated (20) and seventh in tackles for a loss (55). As expected, Chubb (7.5 sacks) is the top pass rusher. However, a pair of 300-pound tackles – seniors B.J. Hill and Justin Jones – are an underrated cog in the success of this defense. Kentavius Street and Darian Roseboro have combined for 3.5 sacks and are an effective duo opposite of Chubb off the edge.
Why is NC State’s defensive line important for Saturday’s game? Clemson’s offensive line has allowed 18 sacks in 2017 but 14 of them came in ACC play. While this unit certainly hasn’t been awful, it has been vulnerable at times in pass protection. In Football Outsiders’ offensive line statistics, the Tigers rank 110th in adjusted sack rate, 108th in standard downs sack rate and 81st in passing downs sack rate.
NC State’s defensive line and generating pressure on opposing quarterbacks is essential to protect a secondary that has been hit with injuries and has allowed seven plays of 40 yards or more in 2017. Can the Wolfpack defensive line consistently get to Bryant on Saturday? And if they can, how much will that disrupt Clemson’s passing game at the line of scrimmage and opportunities downfield?
In addition to sacks and pressure, NC State’s defensive line will be tasked to slow a Clemson ground game ranked second in the ACC. Travis Etienne (489 yards) and Bryant (460 yards) are the top two rushers, but co-coordinators Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott will also utilize Tavien Feaster (424), Adam Choice (202) and C.J. Fuller (172).
3. NC State’s Offense
NC State offensive coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz is one of the rising stars in the assistant ranks. The chess match between Drinkwitz and Clemson defensive play-caller Brent Venables is going to be an interesting battle on Saturday afternoon.
A key question surrounding NC State’s offense was answered on Thursday. Running back Nyheim Hines suffered an ankle injury versus Notre Dame and was uncertain to play earlier in the week. However, all signs point to the junior taking the field and playing at full strength. Hines’ presence is critical for the Wolfpack ground attack, as he has 654 yards and six touchdowns on 118 attempts. If Hines needs a break during Saturday’s game, Drinkwitz can turn to Reggie Gallaspy II (296 yards) and tight end/all-purpose threat Jaylen Samuels (209 yards).
Of course, establishing the run isn’t going to be easy for Drinkwitz against a standout defensive line. Clemson’s defense is limiting opposing offenses to 119.1 rushing yards per game and has 32 sacks through eight games. Ends Austin Bryant and Clelin Ferrell have combined for 11.5 sacks this season, with sophomore standout Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins anchoring the interior. Countering the talent off the edge and on the interior is a tough matchup for any offensive line, but NC State’s group has been solid all season. The Wolfpack have allowed only nine sacks this season and clear the way for rushers to average 4.4 yards per carry.
In order for NC State’s offense to have success moving the ball, it has to win the battles in the trenches. However, the catalyst for this attack remains quarterback Ryan Finley. The Boise State transfer has a quick release and is accurate to the perimeter with quick passes. Through eight games, he’s passed for 2,181 yards and 12 touchdowns to just one interception. Additionally, the junior is completing 66.3 percent of his passes. Finley will also take some chances downfield, and he’s got plenty of talent on the outside to deliver. Samuels leads the team with 56 grabs, and sophomore Kelvin Harmon isn’t too far behind with 43 catches for 644 yards. Stephen Louis, Jakobi Meyers and C.J. Riley are a few of the other key targets for Finley, as NC State will look to utilize their size and speed to attack the outside and take a few shots downfield.
In order for the Wolfpack to win, Drinkwitz has to keep this offense in third-and-short situations and out of obvious passing downs. The offense can’t afford to throw 40-50 times without the threat of a rushing attack, but Finley needs to hit early and often on quick passes to keep Clemson’s defense off balanced. In the loss to Syracuse, Clemson's defense had trouble with the Orange's tempo on offense. NC State may look to replicate some of that speed or tempo changes on Saturday.
As mentioned above, Clemson has no margin for error if it wants to reach the CFB Playoff. For NC State, its playoff hopes are over, but the Atlantic Division title is within reach. The Wolfpack defense will create some problems for Bryant and the Tigers’ offense. And when NC State’s offense has the ball, Finley, Hines and Samuels are more than enough to give headaches to Venables and his staff. The home crowd advantage should help the Wolfpack’s upset bid in the early going, but the Tigers have too much on defense, and Bryant gets going in the second half to earn a victory by a touchdown.