By Peter Koutroumpis
RALEIGH, N.C. – People went bananas at Carter-Finley Stadium when No. 20 N.C. State (6-3, 4-1) kicked off against No. 6 Clemson (8-1, 6-1) on Saturday.
No really, there were people really dressed as bananas in the middle of Section 8, among the rabid Wolfpack students – eight of them to be exact.
They just added to the backdrop of a game that included numerous happenings that made many ‘go bananas’ as the Tigers dug their claws into a 38-31 win over the Wolfpack, and kept a spot in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) championship game in sight.
It was a tough loss for N.C. State head coach Dave Doeren and his squad to suffer, the second in as many weeks following a 35-14 loss at Notre Dame last Saturday.
“They’ve got grit, they’re tough kids, they wanna win, and didn’t,” Doeren said.
“They didn’t wanna be denied that game tonight, and I’m proud of ‘em for how they fought. I’ve got a great group of guys to coach.”
A Tim Kidd-Glass interception off Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant (20-38, 191 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) on the Tigers’ first drive set the Wolfpack up for an early touchdown.
Wolfpack QB Ryan Finley (31-50, 338 yards, 3 TD, 2 INT) wired a 40-yard pass to Kelvin Harmon (8 catches, 155 yards) to put the home side up 7-0 following a Carson Wise PAT.
It didn’t take long for the Tigers to score the equalizer.
Following a 3-and-out drive on the next N.C. State possession, Ray-Ray McCloud returned A.J. Cole’s punt 77 yards to even the score.
The back and forth continued as the Wolfpack took a 14-7 lead on a one-yard rush into the end zone from Jaylen Samuels (12 carries, 38 yards), capping of a 12-play, 65-yard drive, of which the H-back carried a large portion of the final load to score.
It didn’t take long for Bryant to even the score as the Tigers pulled back even early in the second quarter, capping off a 71-yard drive with a 10-yard rush into the end zone.
N.C. State maintained its offensive momentum, and with Finley orchestrating an efficient 75-yard drive and earning five first downs, Samuels used a diving finish to allow the Wolfpack to pull back ahead 21-14 with 9:23 remaining in the half.
Seeing the opportunity to even the score again, Clemson tried valiantly to convert on its passing plays, but diligent positional play by the N.C. State defense afforded only a field goal by Alex Spence.
As the break approached, Wise had a chance to push the Wolfpack lead to 10, but his 34-yard field goal attempt missed.
Bryant eventually moved the chains down to the State 22-yard line, but another strong defensive stand by the Wolfpack combined with Spence’s missed 39-yard field goal attempt allowed N.C. State to carry its 21-17 advantage into halftime.
Clemson’s offense eventually exploded for two touchdowns late in the third.
A 12-yard pass from Bryant gave Deon Cain his touchdown reception for the game, a conversion that gave the Tigers their first lead, ahead 24-21 with 3:31 remaining.
Working the clock down, Finley and the Wolfpack couldn’t get get any closer than the 49-yard line and figured to get out of the period with a simple punt-and-contain special-teams play.
However, Tavien Feaster found space up the middle on the return and ran the ball back 89 yards to stick a dagger into Wolfpack fans’ hearts as the Tigers pulled ahead 31-21 as the period ended.
N.C. State didn’t roll over though.
Finley connected on a 15-yard pass to Jacobi Meyers, capping off a 65-yard drive that got the crowd pumped once again with the touchdown.
An interesting finish to the drive was the appearance of placekicker Kyle Bambard who came in to complete the PAT (in place of Wise).
The Wolfpack trailed 31-28 with 12:23 remaining.
Last season, tied 17-17 with 6:39 left on the road at Clemson, N.C. State made a charge to beat the Tigers in Death Valley, but Bambard’s 33-yard ﬁeld goal attempt went wide as time expired.
The Tigers eventually scored on their ﬁrst OT possession and forced a Wolfpack interception on the ensuing drive for the 24-17 win.
Seeing Bambard back in the fold brought him full circle in facing the demons of that game’s shortfall.
“I was happy for Kyle,” Doeren said.
“Obviously disappointed we ended up there, but that’s where we’re at. I’m very happy for him.”
Clemson’s most critical and key play of the game occurred three minutes later when cornerback Ryan Carter picked off Finley’s pass attempt at the State 27-yard line.
Bryant’s eventual second TD run of the game pushed the Tigers ahead by 10 once more.
Finley and the Wolfpack worked the ball down to the Clemson four-yard line and capped the drive off with a 22-yard field goal from Bambard to trail 38-31 with 1:51 remaining.
Unfortunately for the Wolfpack, Bambard’s ensuing onside kick was recovered by the Tigers’ Trevion Thompson.
Kidd-Glass (6 tackles) and Bradley Chubb (8 tackles, 2 QBH, 1.5 TFL) were instrumental in forcing Clemson to punt from the State 41-yard line.
With the ball rolling into the end zone, N.C. State started its final drive at the 20 with 1:24 to go.
A Finley rush and two consecutive passes to Harmon put the Wolfpack on the Clemson 28-yard line with 40 seconds left.
“We moved the ball well all day, and the game comes down to a couple of plays here and there, and we let them get away from us,” Finley said.
The Tigers defense tightened up and denied two straight pass attempts to Samuels.
Staring at fourth down-and-10, the Wolfpack tried to stay alive – and did!
Meyers caught Finley’s pass and ran it down to the four-yard line, but it was called back on an illegal shift call with 18 seconds to go.
Finley’s last throw of the game was picked off by K’von Wallace and sealed the win for Clemson.
“We had some guys make some huge plays,” Finley said.
“That penalty hurt us…That’s always tough, but it’s part of the game.”
With three games remaining, the Wolfpack will continue to focus on achieving a 10-win season that would include a Bowl game victory.
“I’m really proud of the way they continue to battle,” Doeren said.
“Even though I know they’re very down right now, they’ll continue to battle more as the season goes along…It’s gonna hurt. That’s what happens when you lose a big game, it hurts. We’re not gonna quit either. We’re gonna try to win 10 games. We’ve got three regular season and a bowl game left. It’s been done once in program history, so that’s what we’re gonna play for.”
Peter Koutroumpis: 401-323-8960, @pksport