RALEIGH, N.C. — Clemson trailed much of the day. It faced a veteran ranked team with a strong defensive line. And it was playing in front of a hostile crowd in a game the sixth-ranked Tigers had to win to stay in the race for another College Football Playoff appearance.
In the end, Dabo Swinney’s bunch responded with the same big-game composure — even with a younger team that lost so many stars from last year’s national championship squad.
Tavien Feaster ran for an 89-yard touchdown to end the third quarter and K’Von Wallace picked off Ryan Finley on the final play to help Clemson beat No. 20 North Carolina State 38-31 on Saturday.
Feaster’s break-loose run up the middle and gave Clemson (8-1, 6-1 Atlantic Coast Conference, CFP No. 4) a 31-21 lead entering the fourth, then the Tigers had to hang on in the final seconds as the Wolfpack (6-3, 4-1, CFP No. 20) got one more shot to tie it.
“We’ve got a really young team,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said, “and I thought a lot of guys grew up tonight.”
Wallace was a good example. The sophomore came up with two huge plays after the Wolfpack’s final drive pushed to the Clemson 28, first when he broke up a pass to Jaylen Samuels near the goal line with a hard hit.
Then, after an illegal formation penalty by N.C. State wiped out completion for a first-and-goal, Wallace picked off Finley’s final overthrown fourth-down ball and returned it 55 yards to burn the clock and give Clemson a huge step forward to another ACC Atlantic Division title.
“There was no chance to win the division if we didn’t win up here,” Swinney said.
Finley threw for 338 yards and three touchdowns — including a 40-yard scoring throw to Kelvin Harmon on the first possession to lead the Wolfpack, whose players had talked openly about pursuing revenge after squandering a road win against Clemson in overtime last year.
In the end, this one ended like so many in the series, with the Tigers beating the Wolfpack for the sixth straight year and 13th time in 14 meetings.
“I mean it was a revenge game,” said Samuels, who had a touchdown catch and run. “We’ve been thinking about this game since last year. But they came in and played hard, that’s a great football team over there.”
Clemson: The Tigers showed off their big-game experience, doing just enough to put themselves in control of the ACC’s Atlantic Division race yet again.
“Adversity had kicked in for us early on and throughout the course of the game,” said quarterback Kelly Bryant, who ran for two scores. “Just sticking together and having that brotherhood that we’ve got … that was our mentality on the sideline.”
N.C. State: The Wolfpack had a shot to all but wrap up the Atlantic Division title with a win, but likely saw those hopes end with this loss.
The Wolfpack had six penalties for 69 yards a week after being flagged 12 times for 89 yards in the loss at Notre Dame.
“Coming into this game, we already knew the refs were going to be on their side,” Samuels said. “That’s just how it is, when you’ve got the defending national champions coming into our place.”
Afterward, a frustrated Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren — unprompted— questioned the presence of a laptop on Clemson’s sideline during the game.
“I’d like that to be investigated,” Doeren said. “Maybe they weren’t doing anything but I was told it’s illegal to have technology on the sideline, so I’d like to know that as well.”
Swinney was asked about the laptop, and team spokesman Tim Bourret said it was being used by a student who works with social media.
“It wasn’t anybody from football,” Swinney said, “I can tell you that.”
Ray-Ray McCloud had a 77-yard punt return for a touchdown — a highlight-reel play in which he broke at least three tackles — to give Clemson a first-quarter boost.
Clemson: The Tigers host Florida State on Nov. 11, a game that was supposed to be the marquee matchup in the conference but has lost its luster with the Seminoles’ struggles.
N.C. State: The Wolfpack travel to Boston College on Nov. 11 in a matchup that has given them fits. BC has won three of the last four meetings.
Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap