RALEIGH, N.C. — For more than a decade, it has been hard to imagine the Clemson Tigers being uncomfortable in the position they were in Saturday night: trailing North Carolina State in double overtime, fourth-and-5 at the 20 yard-line in front of a frothy, capacity crowd on the road?
Yes, Clemson was one play away from defeat. But laying before the Tigers was also an opportunity: Score a touchdown and muster the required 2-point conversion and all the futility of the last four hours — the mind-numbing penalties, the crippling injuries and another performance far from their championship standards would be forgotten.
And who has managed to wedge themselves into the smallest crack of an opportunity better than Clemson in recent years? Deshaun Watson’s last-second touchdown pass in the national championship win over Alabama in 2017. The defense stuffing North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell that sealed a 1-point win at North Carolina in 2019. And later that season when safety Nolan Turner snatched a last-second interception in the end zone to thwart Ohio State in a playoff semifinal.
This team, though, is still searching for that old orange magic.
When quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei’s pass fluttered to the turf, far from its target — receiver Justyn Ross — it did more than seal a 27-21 defeat that sent fireworks into the sky and N.C. State students pouring onto the field. It put the Tigers in a position they haven’t been in since 2014 — all but out of the playoff picture with two regular season losses.
And it’s still September.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve been in this situation like this, that’s for sure,” said Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney, who described his locker room as heartbroken and hurting. “We’ve had a lot of great moments and we’ve had a lot of great times and there’s going to be a lot more to come. But this is where we are right now.”
The College Football Playoff has been so stagnant — with the same handful of teams qualifying each year, contributing to declining attendance and TV ratings across the sport — that its leaders are mulling how to increase the format from four teams to eight or 12.
Clemson’s funk is certain to give the playoff a new look this season, and it may not be alone in that disappointment.
Another playoff regular, Ohio State, lost at home to Oregon and had to fend off Tulsa in the final minutes last week. Notre Dame, which has been in the playoff two of the last three years, has been tied or behind in the fourth quarter in three of its four games. And Spencer Rattler, who looked like the next Oklahoma quarterback on his way to the Heisman Trophy, has been so erratic he was booed by Sooners fans on Saturday night after he threw an interception in a tight win over West Virginia.
Meanwhile, Arkansas, which last year snapped a 20-game Southeastern Conference losing streak, has elbowed its way into the early conversation after thumping Texas A&M and Texas.
Still, that may not be quite as big a mystery as Clemson.
The Tigers (2-2) are still brimming with talent — four consecutive top 10 recruiting classes — but they looked on Saturday as they have for almost the entire first month of the season: undisciplined, frazzled and mostly discombobulated on offense.
After fumbling seven times in the previous two games, Clemson committed 13 penalties — five of which were against the defense for jumping offside. And the mistakes can’t all be attributed to youth. Turner, a safety in his sixth year, grabbed a North Carolina State receiver in overtime, gifting the Wolfpack a new set of downs on a third-down incompletion.
Most troublesome, though, is Clemson’s offense.
The season-opening 10-3 loss to second-ranked Georgia, in which the Bulldogs returned an interception for the game’s only touchdown, is one thing; Georgia has one of the nation’s top defenses. But Clemson managed only two touchdowns in last week’s 14-8 victory over Georgia Tech. And here on Saturday, it managed only 184 yards and eight first downs in regulation.
After Uiagalelei fired a pinpoint strike across his body to Ross in the back of the end zone for a 32-yard touchdown less than six minutes into the game, the offense went kaput for most of the rest of the day. Of its next seven drives, six lasted three plays and resulted in a punt. The seventh lasted two and ended with an interception.
Much more is expected from an offense directed by college football’s highest-paid offensive coordinator, Tony Elliott, who pulls in a cool $2 million per year. And young talent like Uiagalelei, who played superbly last season filling in for Trevor Lawrence in an overtime loss at Notre Dame, and a receiving corps that Swinney said over the summer was filled with future pros. The offensive line — with four players who were four-star recruits — has struggled to block the right defenders, let alone knock them off the ball.
“We couldn’t get into a rhythm,” Uiagalelei said before his video conference with reporters was, like the offense, short-circuited by technical troubles. “Lots of three-and-outs. Simple mental mistakes.”
Robert Griffin III, the former Heisman Trophy winning quarterback at Baylor, called Clemson’s offense “archaic” on the ESPN broadcast — and Swinney didn’t argue.
“The criticism is warranted because of where we are right now,” Swinney said. “That’s what we display, so with the way we’ve performed, you’re going to get criticism and you’re going to get comments and things like that and you know what? Hey, that comes with the territory because the expectation and the standard at Clemson and who we are, we’re not meeting that. It’s just that simple.”
Swinney had hoped that a stout defense, which did not give up a touchdown until Saturday, could carry Clemson until the offense jelled. But the offensive futility left the defense gassed as North Carolina State (3-1) sluiced through it as the game progressed. Neither did it help that two of Clemson’s defensive stalwarts — linebacker James Skalski (shoulder) and defensive tackle Bryan Bresee (knee) had their shoulder pads off by the end of the game. (In overtime, Clemson freshman tailback Will Shipley was helped to the locker room with an apparent left knee injury.)
Actually, Clemson was fortunate just to get to overtime.
North Carolina State kicker Christopher Dunn missed two late field goals — from 51 and 39 yards, the latter on the final play of regulation — that would have won it.
When his last kick sailed wide left, the Clemson sideline erupted, certain that they would make the most of another chance. And when Uiagalelei found Ross clearing free in the end zone to put Clemson ahead by 21-14, Swinney slapped his quarterback on the helmet as he came to the sideline for a job well done.
“C’mon D,” someone yelled from the sideline. “One stop.”
It was something they could not manage. Turner committed defensive holding to give the Wolfpack the ball at the 3. And on 3rd-and-goal, quarterback Devin Leary found slot receiver Thayer Thomas wide open in the end zone after he ran through traffic.
Swinney and other coaches pleaded with the officials to throw a flag for offensive interference, saying it was an illegal pick play. But their cries were halfhearted — perhaps because even on the visitors sideline it did not go unnoticed that the play mimicked the one Clemson won a national title with when a pick freed Hunter Renfrow to catch the winning pass.
But that was nearly five years ago, and one of many signs for Clemson on Saturday night of how their circumstance has changed.