Clemson nearly saw its Atlantic Division title hopes escape from its grasp last week when it fell behind by 14 in the third quarter against Wake Forest. But a furious comeback and a game-winning field goal from Chandler Catanzaro saved the Tigers and propelled them to their second ACC Championship appearance in three years. It's important for Clemson to not look past N.C. State this week to arch-rival South Carolina, because the Wolfpack could bring the Tigers back down to earth by pulling an upset at home. Let's take a look at the matchups.
Clemson offense vs. N.C. State defense
Clemson's offense hasn't run as smoothly the past two weeks, and the number one reason is ball security. Quarterback Tajh Boyd has had miscommunications with receivers and forced several throws to covered receivers that have resulted in interceptions. Clemson's normally sure-handed ball-carriers have also put the ball on the ground, as Andre Ellington, D.J. Howard and Mike Bellamy have each lost a fumble. The turnover issues will have to stop against an N.C. State team that is sixth in the nation in takeaways. The biggest threat is cornerback David Amerson, who has an astonishing 10 interceptions this season. Linebackers Audie Cole and Terrell Manning are solid players, along with ball-hawking safety Earl Wolff. Boyd will have to be more confident in the types of throws he makes this week, because this defense will make you pay for every mistake. The Tigers may be without star wide receiver Sammy Watkins, who sprained an AC joint in his right shoulder against Wake. This doesn't help the offense, but Boyd still has plenty of weapons at his disposal. If the Tigers can run the ball effectively and utilize check-down and underneath routes if the Wolfpack drop into deep coverages, they should be able to move the ball successfully and put up points.
Key matchup: Boyd vs. N.C. State secondary
After looking superhuman for eight weeks, Boyd has made several mistakes in the past two games. If the Pack drop lots of guys into deep pass coverage, Boyd will have to take what the defense gives him and not force things down the field.
N.C. State offense vs. Clemson defense
The Wolfpack offense is pretty pedestrian and has been downright pathetic in recent weeks. Quarterback Mike Glennon has put up decent passing numbers, but N.C. State has really struggled to run the ball with much success. In all fairness, it's tough to replace an injured starter (Mustafa Greene). James Washington has done a decent job, though, and has three 100-yard games to his name. T.J. Graham is the Wolfpack's top receiver, but he has done next to nothing (135 total yards, one touchdown) since the fourth game of the season. Clemson's defense has been great at times this season but very average on the whole. The Tigers have made teams that literally cannot run the football look like they have respectable rushing attacks, so that bodes well for N.C. State. But with the Wolfpack's issues with passing the ball lately, Clemson may be able to put more bodies in the box. That also means the Tigers should be able to pressure Glennon, and it looks like a good time for Andre Branch and the rest of the defensive line to get back to where they were earlier in the season
Key matchup: Glennon vs. Clemson pass rush
N.C. State's chances in this game will hinge on Glennon's ability to make plays in the passing game. He has a huge arm, but can he make the throws accurately? If Branch, Brandon Thompson and others can get in his face, my guess is no.
N.C. State's kicking game is nothing to write home about, but Graham could be an issue for Clemson in the return game, as the Tigers have recently allowed multiple return touchdowns. Catanzaro finally made a meaningful kick last week (albeit after missing a gimme), but punter Dawson Zimmerman had a subpar game against the Demon Deacons. Not having Watkins puts a damper on Clemson's kick return abilities, and they will have to find somebody to fill that void.
Boyd's recent issues worry me a bit heading into a two-game road stint. He simply has to be smarter with where he throws the ball, especially against an unforgiving N.C. State defense. The problem for the Wolfpack is that they are just not a very good offensive football team, and you're going to have to have some kind of capacity to score points to keep up with Clemson. I don't think the Tigers run away with this one because the offense won't run as seamlessly if Watkins is out or limited. But I think they have too much firepower and speed for N.C. State to pull off a shocker.
Clemson 28 N.C. State 17