RALEIGH, NC – Dabo Swinney emerged from Clemson’s locker room late Thursday night, walked to the front of the postgame interview room and studied a stat sheet for a moment. Then he breathed a big sigh of relief.
“I’m glad to get that one over with,” he said with a smile. “We can’t load the buses up soon enough, I’m telling you. That’s a good football team we just played.”
Tajh Boyd and Martavis Bryant hooked up for a pair of second-half touchdowns, and Clemson overcome a shaky start and pulled away for a 26-14 win against a pesky NC State squad at Carter-Finley Stadium in the ACC opener for both teams.
Senior kicker Chandler Catanzaro became Clemson’s all-time scoring leader with two field goals and two extra points on the night, while Boyd moved into a tie for second place in ACC history for career touchdown passes.
The Wolfpack (2-1, 0-1 ACC) limited Clemson (3-0, 1-0 ACC) to just two Catanzaro field goals until deep into the first half, and they took their first lead of the game at 7-6 after driving 92 yards on seven plays to reach the end zone in the second quarter.
But Boyd hit tight end Sam Cooper, less than five months removed from ACL surgery, for a diving 11-yard scoring grab just before halftime, and the Tigers pulled away by scoring 20 unanswered points after NC State took its only lead.
Clemson, which came in ranked No. 3 in the nation by The Associated Press, was led in receiving by Sammy Watkins, who had 10 catches for 96 yards, but it was Bryant who had the game’s biggest grabs and finished with six receptions for 73 yards and two scores.
“Martavis is a great player and is going to be a great player, and it was good to see him go out there and make some unbelievable catches today,” Boyd said. “It showed that we have confidence to go to him in certain situations. The two big balls that I completed to him were third-and-longs, and he did a great job and went out there and made a play.”
The Tigers got on the board on the game’s opening drive with a 49-yard field goal by Catanzaro, and he tacked on three more points with a 45-yarder early in the second quarter. At that point, Catanzaro had made 28 straight field goals inside 48 yards and 30 of his last 31 overall.
NC State broke on to the scoreboard – and took its first lead of the game – on the ensuing drive, as Shadrach Thornton burst up the middle from 21 yards out and powered across the goal line with 11:03 left in the half to make it 7-6 State.
Cooper put the Tigers back on top with a diving 11-yard touchdown grab that made it 13-7 with 2:23 to go until halftime after Catanzaro’s extra point. That kick tied Catanzaro for Clemson’s all-time scoring record with 329 for his career, matching the mark set by Aaron Hunt from 2000-03.
Cooper’s catch punctuated his return less than five months after ACL surgery, as he tore the ligament in the Tigers’ Spring Game in April and had surgery the first week of May. The junior played in the previous game against South Carolina State, but the touchdown – the third of his career, all on the road – was his first catch of the season.
The Tigers forced the game’s first turnover with 6:52 to go in the third quarter when Vic Beasley stripped Pete Thomas on a third-and-10 play – one of Beasley’s three sacks on the night – and Spencer Shuey came up with the loose ball at the State 48.
“I definitely feel like that got us a lot of momentum,” Shuey said. “It was kind of back-and-forth defensive performances on both sides, and Vic was able to get some pressure on the quarterback and get that ball out. … That was definitely a big momentum shift for us.”
Five plays later, Boyd hit a streaking Bryant in the back of the end zone for a 30-yard touchdown to give the Tigers the first double-digit lead of the game for either team.
“That was something we’ve been working on in practice all week,” Bryant said, “and Coach Swinney talked to me about really sticking it at the top of my break – and I stuck it at the top of my break and came open.”
Catanzaro’s extra point made it 20-7, and it also gave Catanzaro the school’s all-time scoring record with 330 career points.
“It’s really cool,” Catanzaro said. “Everybody did their jobs today on the field goal unit – good snaps, good holds, good blocking up front – and they made my job easy. It’s just as much their record as it is mine, but I’m very happy right now. It’s very cool to say that I have the most points in a career.”
Boyd and Bryant hooked up to find the end zone again after the Wolfpack missed a field goal on their possession. On a third-down play from the State 15, Boyd lofted a pass to the sideline, and Bryant simply went up and took it away from defensive back Niles Clark for the score.
“That was just a back-shoulder (throw) that we work on everyday in practice,” Bryant said.
The score marked the first career two-touchdown game of Bryant’s career, and it also moved Boyd into a tie for second place on the ACC’s all-time career touchdown passes list with 79 for his career. Former Florida State Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke also had 79 between 1997-2000, while former NC State great Philip Rivers is the leader with 95.
Boyd had been tied with former NC State great Russell Wilson (2008-10) with 76 coming into the game.
The Tigers’ two-point try failed, but they still led 26-7 with 11:27 to go in the game.
State refused to go away, however, and marched 84 yards on 23 plays – converting four fourth downs along the way – and found the end zone on a four-yard run by Thomas to make it 26-14 with 3:50 to go in the game.
But the drive took 7:32 off the clock, and Bryant recovered the ensuing onside kick to allow the Tigers to escape with the win.
“I’m really proud of our guys,” Swinney said. “The goal was to be 3-0 right now, and that’s where we are. We’ve got nine more to go, and our formula doesn’t change. … I don’t think you ever know everything about your team until you go on the road, and especially until you go to a place like this where there’s a passionate fan base and there’s some adversity, and you’ve got to battle through it.
“I’m really proud of our guys for how they competed for four quarters.”
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