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September 19, 2013

Survive and advance

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When you sport a No. 3 ranking and a supercharged offense, the expectation from the hyperventilating college football world is as follows:

Walk into the stadium of an inferior opponent. Blow that opponent's doors off. Spend the next week hearing everyone rave about you.

People get more nitpicky about teams that reach this rarefied air, and surely there will be skeptics at home and abroad after Clemson's victory at N.C. State on Thursday night.

Oregon went to Virginia a few weeks ago and torched the joint in a 59-10 mobster-style execution, so why couldn't the Tigers do that to the Wolfpack - or anything remotely close to it?

Such exacting criticism will follow this 26-14 victory that was at times far more uncomfortable and dicey and sweat-filled than everyone expected going in.

"I'm exhausted," Dabo Swinney said afterward. "I feel like I played every snap."

But the Tigers, however sapped, don't have to worry about style points - not right now. They managed to extract themselves from a certifiably perilous situation and were all smiles afterward. When the last trip to the place ended in a 37-13 lashing, you take a 12-point victory and you don't complain much.

As uplifting and exhilarating and certifying as the opening victory over Georgia was for this program, it was still the opening game. Swinney has said on more than one occasion that you don't truly know what kind of team you have until the fourth or fifth week of the season, and in the third game Clemson showed it still has plenty to clean up before Oct. 19 when Florida State comes to town.

The good thing is there's a month between now and then, and the Tigers probably won't face a challenge as stiff as they did Thursday night before they have to face the Seminoles in a game that's shaping up to feature just as much buildup and intrigue as the opener against the Bulldogs.

Is this team really the third-best team in the country, as a bunch of pinhead sportswriters say it is? Didn't look like it at times on this night. But this is September, and the Tigers can leave the debating to the people who need something to fill air time and blog space.

Against Wake Forest, Syracuse and Boston College, they'll have to get Tajh Boyd sharper after he had a near-nightmarish first half while missing game-turning throws that were there to be made.

They'll have to shore up pass protection, particularly on the right edge, after early pressure seemed to spook Boyd and throw him off his rhythm (and heck, maybe all the pressure from the Heisman talk spooked him a little, too).

They'll have to address poor tackling and lack of discipline on the back end of their defense, deficiencies everyone already knew about.

And they'll have to eradicate some boneheadedness on display in the final minutes when reserve lineman Isaiah Battle delivered an uppercut to a Wolfpack defender to assure prompt ejection, plus D.J. Howard's decision to run out of bounds with the clock ticking.

Overall, though, Swinney was happy with his team's ability to shake free from the shakiness away from home.

"You never really know what you've got with your football team until you go on the road and you have some adversity on the road," Swinney said. "(N.C. State) is a good team. They're going to win some games and be a factor in this conference. They'll be a really good team by the end of the year.

"Man, we missed some huge opportunities in the first half. But we settled in."

Swinney has said BCS contenders normally need a few good breaks here or there to survive and advance to the title game, and the Tigers benefited from a monstrously good break to survive in Raleigh. It came halfway through the third quarter when Bryan Underwood was ruled to have stepped out of bounds on an 83-yard dash to the end zone off a jet sweep. The camera in the sky indicated the refs goofed, and a few plays later the ball was back in Clemson hands after a Vic Beasley bull-rush caused a Pete Thomas fumble that was recovered by Spencer Shuey.

And a few plays after that, Boyd ran some funky misdirection play-action and hit Martavis Bryant for a 30-yard touchdown to put Clemson up 20-7.

Who knows what would've happened had the whistle not blown on Underwood's long run and the Wolfpack snatched a 14-13 lead halfway through the third quarter?

Maybe the Tigers proceed to melt down in a fashion similar to two years ago in Raleigh. Maybe they produce the same steely-eyed determination and pull through exactly as they did when behind last December against LSU and last month against Georgia.

Preoccupation with hypotheticals is typically reserved for the losing team, and irate N.C. State fans will be howling for some time about this apparent gaffe.

Clemson can be content in the knowledge that it finally started capitalizing on its offensive opportunities, Chad Morris pounding the run and Bryant snatching a back-shoulder touchdown pass out of the air just like Nuk Hopkins did. The Tigers' defense can be stoked about Beasley's abuse of emergency left tackle Joe Thuney, about Shaq Lawson's tackles for loss, about allowing 14 points to a team that rang up 48 last November in Death Valley.

Swinney said coming in the Tigers had to play their A game to leave Carter-Finley with a victory, and he was wrong on that count.

But you can be happy about being wrong when you have a win in your pocket. You can smile about a road win over an inferior team even though it wasn't the comprehensive demolition that's expected of elite teams.

It wasn't often pretty. It wasn't often Oregon-like. But it doesn't have to be. Not now, at least.

*** To chat with other Clemson fans about this article please visit The West Zone message board.

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