One of the main focuses on the Clemson football team this season has been its turnover problems on offense and defense.
The Tigers entered their game against N.C. State tied with the Wolfpack with an Atlantic Coast Conference-leading 17 turnovers. Conversely, the Tigers had only forced a league-low six on defense.
All that, however, changed in a big way after Clemson held onto the ball, while at the same time forcing six turnovers, five of which were interceptions, to get the 26-20 victory over N.C. State on a gorgeous Saturday at Memorial Stadium.
The biggest of the bunch came on the game's final play as Charles Bennett hauled in the Tigers' fifth interception of the game at the Clemson 4 to secure the win.
"I just wanted to make a play," said Bennett, who had dropped back into coverage in a zone blitz. "There have been so many times this year where making a play would have made a difference. On the last play, the coaches had me in the position to make the play. I just took that opportunity and did it."
The win means Clemson and the Wolfpack have identical records at 4-4 overall and 3-3 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. However, the win meant much, much more to the Tigers and their postseason bowl hopes.
Now, even if the Clemson loses next week at vaunted Miami as most expect, all the Tigers have to do is win at Duke and beat rival South Carolina in Death Valley in the season finale to qualify for a bowl.
Had Clemson lost, it would have had to win at Miami to make the postseason.
"I've never been down 1-4 and comeback like that (to make a bowl)," Tigers head coach Tommy Bowden said. "It would be quite and accomplishment for this team, but right now we've got a pretty strong foe next week in Miami."
N.C. State still has a winnable home game against Georgia Tech and closes out the season against a horrible East Carolina. If they Wolfpack take care of business, they will make the postseason as well.
The six forced turnovers are the most by a Clemson team since it played Missouri in 2000. The five interceptions were the most by a Tigers defense since 1995 against North Carolina.
Those turnovers led to 16 Clemson points, which were the first points for the Tigers off of turnovers all season.
Tigers cornerback Justin Miller had two interceptions, with his most important coming at the end of the first half, which wound up forcing the Wolfpack to have to score a touchdown at the end rather than go for a tying kick.
With the score tied at 10-10 and under a minute left until halftime, N.C. State was marching and looking to take a lead at intermission.
It looked as though the Wolfpack had scored with 0:51 left after John Dunlap made a diving catch in the end zone on a 33-yard pass from Davis. However, the play was negated because of an illegal procedure penalty.
Five plays later on the same drive, Dunlap made another diving catch in the end zone, this one coming with just 10 seconds until half. But once again, N.C. State was called for illegal procedure to take away the score.
On the very next play, Davis through a wild, floating pass into the end zone and Miller made the interception, which prevented the Wolfpack from attempting a field goal.
|"This was a team win," Whitehurst said. "We were able to make some plays on offense and the defense kept making plays to keep us in the game."|
"They could have gotten seven … and they would have gotten three for sure, probably," Bowden said. "If they would have gotten that, a field goal would have put it in overtime. That ended up being big."
That was the first time since his freshman year that Miller had two interceptions in a game.
"Our defense made the plays when we had to," he said. "If feels great to win one at the end after losing one here at the end earlier this year (against Georgia Tech). We are really playing with confidence on defense."
Besides Bennett's pick to end the game, the other big interception came from another defensive lineman.
With the Wolfpack backed up deep in their own territory, Clemson defensive tackle Eric Coleman intercepted a swing pass from quarterback Jay Davis in the flat and rambled 20 yards for his team's first touchdown of the game.
It was the first touchdown by a defensive lineman since Terry Jolly did it against Duke in 1999, and the first by a Tigers player since Charles Hafley did it in 2000 against Missouri.
"The difference now is that we're making the plays that we weren't making the first five games of the season," Coleman said. "We were so close early in the season, but we just couldn't seem to make a play when we had to. Now, we're in the perfect spots and doing what we should've been doing all along. We're making plays."
While interceptions were the order of the day on defense, the offense continued to struggle. And had it not been for sophomore placekicker Jad Dean, even with all the turnovers, the Tigers would have been in trouble.
Dean booted field goals of 47, 42, 36, and 21 yards, all of which were right down the pipe, to account for the majority of the offensive points. The only offensive touchdown came in the third quarter when quarterback Charlie Whitehurst hit receiver Airese Currie on a 24-yard pass early in the third quarter.
"I'm just glad I can help the team win any way I can," said a reserved Dean. "My job is to make field goals and that's what I did. I just went out there and executed."
Other than Dean, the lone bright spot on offense was the play of wide receiver Airese Currie, who tallied seven receptions for 108 yards and the one touchdown. It was his first touchdown since the first game of the season.
Whitehurst finished the game 14-33 passing for 183 yards and with no interceptions for the second straight game after having thrown at least one in his previous 10.
"This was a team win," Whitehurst said. "We were able to make some plays on offense and the defense kept making plays to keep us in the game."
Tailback Reggie Merriweather led the Tigers in rushing with 14 carries for 56 yards, while teammate Duane Coleman had 10 attempts for 38 yards.
N.C. State running back T.A. McLendon showed why there is a perception around the league of him being soft. Nearly each time he took a hard hit, he went to the bench. In fact, he didn't play in the second half due to a bruised shoulder.
Even without the star running back in the second half and the six turnovers, the Wolfpack still managed to out-gain Clemson 381-267 in total offensive yards.
"I would like touchdowns," Bowden said. "If you can get touchdowns, then it's not a game."
But he also likes the fact that his defense has won his last two games.
"I wish it'd be like that every year I was a head coach," Bowden said. "I wish I started that six years ago and that every week I knew I could depend on the defense every single game. I would have won a bunch more games than I've won."