The play that stands out the most following Saturday night’s loss to Clemson was the first play of the second half. State had played a very evenly matched first half on the road at the number five team in the country, and it came out swinging to start the second. Leary got man coverage on Devin Carter and tried to take a shot downfield, but the Clemson pass rush got home just in time, sacking Leary right as he tried to throw the ball. Instead of Carter having a rare chance at a one-on-one, it was 2nd and 18. State would punt two plays later, Clemson would extend its lead, and it would only look back a couple of times.
To me, this is all of it. Clemson dominated the line of scrimmage, and the Tigers won the game’s biggest moments because of it. State never really got to test the Clemson secondary because it was so thoroughly overmatched at the line of scrimmage. There was nowhere to run the ball, and Clemson was getting home with four guys, allowing them to drop seven, play with a cushion, and force State to take the underneath throws. It worked perfectly.
All of that is more a testament to Clemson than commentary on NC State. You’re going to hear this take a lot, no doubt, but Clemson is good, and it played well under the lights at home. None of that is surprising, and all of it should factor into any evaluation of the game. The better team won.
Despite Clemson’s best game of the season, State was right there down by a score in the fourth quarter. There are no moral victories when you’re a top 10 team, but that fact should at least offer a solid rebuttal to some bizarre idea that State just flubbed it here. State was ready for this moment, but it slipped away because the Pack was just outgunned in a couple key areas. That’s the experience a lot of good teams have when they play Clemson. The Pack had to capitalize on all of its chances to win on Saturday. The game was gettable, but if you can’t miss any opportunities and still win, then you aren’t the better team. The better team usually wins.
None of this is to say that State played or coached its best game. It most certainly did not. State made its share of mistakes, but the Pack was outgunned because its biggest issues right now are personnel-based. The offensive line struggled, but won’t face another front like Clemson’s this year. It’s not a strength, but it’s fine. The bigger problems are at wide receiver, where State has one guy who is really playing well. This offense was never going to cook the Clemson secondary like Wake did for like eight different reasons, one of which is that it does not have a receiving corps that’s remotely competitive with Wake Forest’s. Thayer Thomas is really good, and there’s a reason he got 142 targets on Saturday. Nobody else is doing anything. One of the few question marks in the preseason was who would step up on the outside to compensate for Emezie’s departure. So far the answer is nobody.
There are not a lot of places down the field for Leary to go with the football because his targets don’t separate from coverage well. They don’t have the physicality of year’s past and guys are not getting open, so how do you make a play? I know people want to tear Tim Beck’s head off, but when you factor that in, there is not much a coordinator can do to be effective against a Clemson team that can play soft coverage shells all game and not have to worry about the run or getting heat on the quarterback.
Leary took all the underneath stuff in the first half sans the one shot to Carter on the first drive and left with a great completion percentage. When State fell behind in the second and tried to open up the offense a little more, he was forced to find tight windows between the layers of coverage and had very little time to do it. State tried to take shots downfield, but guys were not open. Some of that is on the receivers, more of it is credit to Clemson, but the product is bad any way you choose to slice it.
It’s unfortunate that State has gotten pretty much the worst case scenario trying to replace Emezie, because the rest of the team is ready and there are at least six guys that could seize that opportunity. None have though. I think if you gave this team the 2018 receiving corps, they’d win the national championship, but there is one guy right now who would see the field with that group.
This is really the root of State’s offensive issues. There is not much there at receiver and in this particular game, those problems were exacerbated by State’s inability to match up at the line of scrimmage. There are other things, sure. Leary hasn’t been as accurate this year as we’re used to, and there are certainly frustrating things with how State operates its offense. It’s built around ball control and taking what’s given to you, and it’s pretty boring and uncreative a lot of the time. You’re totally welcome to be frustrated with that, and maybe there is more the scheme can do to help guys get open, but there wasn’t a play sheet in America that was suddenly going to make State explosive on Saturday.
That’s the reality of the game. Clemson was better, and NC State has holes. No amount of nitpicking about individual plays or sequences is going to change that. State couldn’t make enough plays to overcome that so it missed an opportunity. That’s life.
It will not be the last opportunity, however. I’ve already seen a bunch “who knows the next time State will have this opportunity,” and I think this is hysterical because it’s the same thing people said after losing to Clemson in 2017, after losing to Clemson in 2018, and after losing to Wake in 2021. So the answer is probably pretty darn soon. If you watched this team go to the wire for the Atlantic Division in 2017 and 2021 and still want to be a defeatist about the future because of this game, I don’t know what to tell you. You should just go to bed. I don’t care what time it is as you read this, just go to bed. You need a nap.
The ACC Championship is over this year but there’s a lot to still play for, and the ACC Championship is not over next year, or the year after that, or the year after that. We have a really good football program. It’s not as good as Clemson playing at home. There are maybe three teams in America that are. Don’t let that change your perception of where we’re at here. It’s a pretty good place. Let’s beat Florida State.