The ACC’s Atlantic Division is officially up for grabs for the first time in five years. The Wolfpack beat Clemson for the first time in 10 years. And for the first time in even longer, N.C. State is in real control of its own ACC destiny.
Those three milestones are not unrelated. While the other half of the ACC is so often a free-for-all, the Atlantic Division has been Clemson’s turf for what feels like an eternity. And now, where there is always Coastal chaos, there is now Atlantic anarchy.
N.C. State did that Saturday night, outlasting Clemson through two overtimes for its first win over Clemson since 2011 and its biggest win, period, since a year after that, when now-famous fan Jake Robinson shook his bare belly on national television after a win over then-No. 3 Florida State. This trumped any in Dave Doeren’s tenure by far, now 1-10 against top-10 teams.
It’s too soon to say whether this celebration will have a viral moment, but the students gave it a shot, storming the field in relief as much as joy after Clemson’s final pass went awry to seal a 27-21 Wolfpack win. Their patience and perseverance had been tested by a missed field goal that would have won the game in regulation -- the second in five games against Clemson, although with a different overtime outcome this time around.
N.C. State vanquished Clemson and its own demons, all at once.
“The curse is broken, N.C. State fans, finally,” Doeren said. “Finally. I’ve been here nine years. I’ve seen a lot of crazy stuff. You wouldn’t believe it. I think it was real and it’s not there now. We can move on and be happy about that.”
Saturday’s win was seismic on so many fronts, upending the foundation on which ACC football has been built for years, altering the equation and the dynamic and the narrative all at once.
Clemson may not be done dusted yet, but the Tigers are on the run, their force field of ACC invincibility not only punctured but shattered.
Wake Forest is lurking, 4-0 after Friday night’s win at Virginia and always a thorn in N.C. State’s side, especially in Winston-Salem. Boston College has yet to lose.
But the Wolfpack gets extra credit for toppling the throne Saturday, and that gives the Wolfpack prime position a third of the way through the season.
“It’s definitely huge to beat a team like that, that has been the standard in our conference and our league the last few years,” N.C. State linebacker Isaiah Moore said. “To come out with a win like that, it’s huge for our team and our program going forward. I feel like it really puts us in a place we want to be.”
Clemson has dropped ACC games before — Notre Dame* last season, Syracuse in 2017, Pittsburgh in 2016 — but always merely a blip on the orange brick road to Charlotte. This is different. It’s within the division, and to a contender that now has a tiebreaker edge. And never — ever — has Clemson looked this vulnerable in the Dabo Swinney Era.
The Tigers miss the threat of Travis Etienne as much as they miss Etienne himself. DJ Uiagaleilei isn’t Tajh Boyd or Deshaun Watson or Trevor Lawrence, but really, who is? It’s only surprising that Uiagaleilei is human because of the improbable run of generational stars that preceded him.
Clemson has had an amazing run at quarterback, just as it has at about every position, but it’s not there now. This may just be a one-year disruption in the conveyor belt that delivers five-star recruits to top of the depth chart, but it’s still a bad year to run dry all at once.
“It’s been a long time,” Swinney said. “It’s been a long time since we’ve been in a situation like this for sure.”
And N.C. State took advantage, to its credit. It wasn’t always pretty — the Wolfpack committed 11 penalties, dropped a pair of deep balls, turned the ball over once on a stupid gimmick play and nearly did on another — but N.C. State’s offense was timely and effective when it had to be, at its best when Devin Leary took the short passes over the middle Clemson was content to allow.
It was impossible to argue that Clemson outplayed N.C. State in any way. This was earned and deserved, if not easy, and a long time coming. It was a different ACC on Saturday night than it was Saturday morning. The fundamental assumptions of the Atlantic Division have been upended. It’s anyone’s division to win, including N.C. State.