RALEIGH, N.C. -- For a moment -- one crucial, game-changing moment -- it looked like old times for Clemson.
Here were the Tigers, clinging to a three-point lead in a game that had seen momentum swing from one side to the other and back again repeatedly, desperate to put some distance between them and NC State. They needed 5 yards. It was fourth down. There’s a game plan for that, of course. His name is Hunter Renfrow.
The hero of the Tigers’ 2016 national championship was the difference again Saturday, hauling in a short throw from Kelly Bryant and dragging a defender past the sticks and on down the sideline, setting up a Clemson touchdown that put the defending champs back in the driver’s seat for a third straight ACC title.
Saturday's 38-31 Clemson victory was hardly emphatic. NC State found the end zone on three of its first four drives. Clemson trailed at the half. Ryan Finley completed his first 14 balls, and the Wolfpack (6-3, 4-1 ACC) carved up a defense that had been among the country’s best this season.
But when it mattered most, there was Renfrow with a fourth-down conversion. There was Ray-Ray McCloud with a 77-yard dance into the end zone on a punt return. There was Tavien Feaster, wrapping up the third quarter with an 89-yard dash directly down the middle of the field for a score. There was K'Von Wallace, who bulldozed Jaylen Samuels at the goal line and dislodged what appeared to be a game-tying touchdown grab before picking off Finley’s last-gasp pass one play later. And there was Bryant, looking as savvy and determined as his predecessor, Deshaun Watson, rebounding from a dismal start to finish with 279 total yards and three touchdowns.
"I thought a lot of guys grew up tonight," Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said. "It was an unbelievable experience for our group. It was championship-type football where you have to make plays in critical moments, and we did that."
In the aftermath of last month’s loss at Syracuse, when the game went similarly haywire for the Tigers (8-1, 6-1) but none of the heroes rose to the occasion, Saturday’s game was something more than just a victory. It was notice that this is still Clemson, the defending champ, a team that will not surrender its perch atop the ACC Atlantic easily.
If the Syracuse game was a reminder of Clemson’s vulnerability, Saturday’s win was a reminder of its resilience.
"The speech at halftime, we didn't talk about Syracuse," defensive lineman Clelin Ferrell said. "[Swinney] talked about the national championship, and how we were down to Alabama at halftime."
But NC State was able to frustrate Clemson in much the same way the Orange did at the Carrier Dome on Oct. 13. Finley was surgically accurate, picking apart Clemson's secondary behind an offensive line that allowed virtually no pressure. The Wolfpack’s terrific receiving corps tormented the Tigers, with both Kelvin Harmon and Jakobi Meyers eclipsing 100 yards. And Bradley Chubb was as good as advertised, shoving, twisting and surging into the backfield again and again.
But this, Swinney noted, was different than Syracuse. This was a championship atmosphere, and that's the standard he wanted Clemson to match.
Is this offense good enough to compete for a championship? The 38 points were the second most against an ACC opponent this year.
Can the defense adjust to the unexpected? The Wolfpack were held to just 48 yards in a decisive third quarter.
Is Bryant the same type of ice-water-in-his-veins quarterback that Watson was throughout his career? He shrugged off a 2-of-9 start to deliver a victory, scoring Clemson's final touchdown with a 1-yard rush into the end zone with less than seven minutes to play.
Clemson offered proof it was a championship-level team again Saturday, not in convincingly dominant fashion, but by finding a new set of stars and returning, again, to Renfrow, one of its most reliable heroes.
"We weren't going to kick on that fourth down," Swinney said. "We were going to go get it, and Renfrow is as good as it gets."
None of this settles things definitively. NC State remains alive in the ACC Atlantic, though the Wolfpack are now playing to an inside straight. Clemson’s spot in the College Football Playoff committee’s top four looks all the more assured, but a date with Florida State awaits next week. The offense found its groove, but it was not without its missteps along the way. The defense held, but it was tested beyond any level of comfort for Clemson fans.
That’s all concern for sometime down the road. Saturday was something else, something like last season, when destiny seemed to always smile on the Tigers and the end result was less about escape than a team proving it belonged.
"We're still a little bit of a work in progress," Swinney said. "But we've got a shot, and that's all you can ask for in November."