Turnovers keep happening, streaks keep breaking and the Clemson football team keeps free-falling after a decade of consistency and six years among the sport’s elite.
The Tigers dropped their fourth game of the season and second in a row Saturday at N.C. State, falling 24-17 to a conference rival they’d beaten 17 times in their last 19 meetings and dropping even lower in the ACC standings.
Clemson scored 10 unanswered points in the fourth quarter and had the ball back with a chance to tie the game with about four minutes remaining. But on fourth-and-19 from their own 43-yard line with 25 seconds remaining, the Tigers couldn’t convert as quarterback Cade Klubnik’s pass to Tyler Brown fell incomplete.
N.C. State ran out the clock from there at Carter-Finley Stadium.
With the loss, coach Dabo Swinney’s program drops to 4-4 and 2-4 in the ACC. The loss snaps Clemson’s nation-leading streak of 161 straight games without back-to-back regular season losses, dating back to November 2011.
The loss to Wolfpack also confirms Clemson can’t win 10 games this season, as the Tigers only have five games remaining at most — and nine wins at most if they qualify for a bowl game and win out. That was the third-longest streak in FBS history.
Coming off a double overtime loss at Miami, Clemson couldn’t get out of its own way early, with untimely penalties nullifying big plays on offense and defense alike.
Klubnik’s third-and-long pass to wide receiver Troy Stellato got called back because fellow receiver Beaux Collins was holding, and linebacker Barrett Carter’s blow-up of a screen pass on second down — setting up a third-and-long—– turned into a first down because teammate Xavier Thomas grabbed someone’s face mask on the play.
Add in Klubnik’s first-quarter interception on a pass that was over tight end Jake Briningstool’s head, and it was no wonder Clemson trailed 10-0 in the first half.
The Tigers didn’t have an answer early for KC Concepcion, N.C. State’s talented true freshman receiver and only reliable playmaker this season. Concepcion had a 50-yard rush and caught a nine-yard touchdown pass on the possession immediately following Klubnik’s interception.
N.C. State had a chance to go up two touchdowns at home but opted against a fourth-and-2 from Clemson’s 23-yard line, taking a 41-yard field goal to go up 10-0 instead.
That was smart considering Clemson’s offense, led by highly touted coordinator Garrett Riley, didn’t cross the 50-yard line on its first four possessions. The Tigers finally got things going with a nine-play, 75-yard scoring drive that ended with a Phil Mafah rushing touchdown.
That drive, though, was colored by a scary injury to star Clemson running back Will Shipley, who took a hard hit to the head/neck area right near the goal line. Shipley left under his own power but was ruled out for the remainder of the game at halftime, per the television broadcast.
Trailing 10-7 right before halftime, Klubnik made a few nice throws to Briningstool and Collins — but Clemson got conservative and ran a designed quarterback run on third and 10 from N.C. State’s 27-yard line to set up a field goal with two seconds left.
Given the Tigers’ consistent kicking game struggles this season, it surprised few in Carter-Finley Stadium when walk-on Jonathan Weitz missed from 43 yards out, dropping him to 5-9 this season and 1-4 on field goals longer than 40 yards.
N.C. State led 10-7 at halftime and linebacker Payton Wilson, the sixth-year heart and soul of the Wolfpack defense, made it 17-7 out of the break when he intercepted a tipped pass and returned it 15 yards for a touchdown 5 minutes into the third.
The interception was Klubnik’s second of the game and third over the last two games after he’d thrown 170 straight passes without an interception dating back to Week 3 of this season — 12 attempts short of the third-longest streak in school history.
A wild crowd got wilder when, after a Collins drop ended a promising Clemson possession, NC State quarterback MJ Morris — starting his third game of the year after replacing Brennan Armstrong — threw a 72-yard touchdown pass to Concepcion to go up 24-7 late in the third quarter.
Clemson cornerback Toriano Pride Jr. whiffed badly on a tackle on the play as Concepcion scored his second touchdown of the afternoon to put NC State up three touchdowns and Clemson in very dangerous territory.
The Tigers scored 10 unanswered points in the fourth quarter, with Klubnik leading two scoring drives ending in another short Mafah touchdown and a short Weitz field goal, to get within a touchdown of NC State at 24-17.
The Clemson forcing three straight punts against a scrappy N.C. State offense also benefited the Tigers, who got the ball back trailing by a touchdown with 4:23 remaining in the game. They needed 93 yards for a game-tying touchdown.
But the Tigers, like they have so many times this season, came up short.
Next Clemson game
Who: Notre Dame at Clemson
When: next Saturday, time TBA
Where: Memorial Stadium in Clemson