After a one-year hiatus, the ACC Atlantic runs through Clemson once again.
The No. 5 Tigers hosted No. 10 NC State on Saturday night and turned in a strong all-around performance in a 30-20 victory. With the win, Clemson improved to 5-0 and is alone atop the division standings with a 3-0 record in ACC play.
And with wins over Wake Forest and NC State already on the books, two of the most significant challenges on the schedule are already in the win column for the Tigers in their quest to regain position atop the ACC and return to the College Football Playoff.
It was a close game early with the score tied 3-3 for most of the first half. Clemson took a 6-3 lead before the teams traded touchdowns in the final two minutes of the half, giving the Tigers a 13-10 lead at the break.
The second half, though, was controlled by Clemson — particularly on defense. NC State opened the second half with the ball, but Clemson registered sacks of Wolfpack quarterback Devin Leary on two of the first three plays of the third quarter.
On the ensuing drive, Clemson marched right down the field for a touchdown to stretch the lead to 20-10. NC State cut the lead down with a field goal, but every other second-half drive for the Wolfpack resulted in either a punt or a turnover until a garbage time touchdown in the final minute of play.
Clemson’s offense wasn’t overly explosive, but it was able to do enough in the second half to eat up clock and pull out a convincing victory.
After a great effort in last week’s win over Wake Forest, D.J. Uiagalelei turned in another solid performance at quarterback for the Tigers. He completed 21-of-30 throws for 209 yards and a touchdown. He also led Clemson in rushing, finishing the night with 73 yards and two scores on 14 attempts. And most of all, he avoided turnovers and kept the chains moving against a really good NC State defense.
What does this mean for Clemson?
Clemson’s defense was much sharper this week than it was versus Wake Forest. Of course, NC State has nowhere near the talent on the outside that the Demon Deacons have, but quarterback Devin Leary is one of the better players at his position in the ACC, and the secondary was far better this time around.
With NC State’s run game completely stifled, Leary was forced to go to the air early and often, without much success. Clemson limited Leary to just 245 yards on 47 attempts in an excellent bounce-back effort.
The Clemson offense was a major weakness in 2021 but it is definitely an improved unit in 2022. Uiagalelei in particular is much more steady and reliable as both a runner and passer.
The running game with Will Shipley is usually pretty reliable, but the Tigers will need their receiver group to make plays on a more consistent basis. This week, freshman Antonio Williams led the team with five receptions while tight end Jake Briningstool caught four passes for 54 yards and a touchdown.
That group will have the chance to make some more plays in the weeks ahead with back-to-back road games against Boston College and Florida State. Later on in the schedule are undefeated Syracuse, Notre Dame and Miami.
Clemson will be favored in every regular season game it plays, but there are definitely some tricky spots in the weeks ahead as Dabo Swinney’s group tries to get back to the CFP.
What does this mean for NC State?
This was supposed to be the year for the Wolfpack. With Clemson seeming to have taken a step back and so much talent returning for NC State, many thought Dave Doeren's team would take the next step.
Getting another win over Clemson would have certainly been a part of the program's quest for a conference title. The Wolfpack beat Pitt last year but it was Wake Forest that ended up winning the division title.
There's still time for NC State to make a move in the standings, but it's is going to have to hope Clemson is upset somewhere along the way.
Now 4-1, NC State will host Florida State next week. FSU entered Saturday unbeaten, but the Seminoles lost at home to Wake Forest.