RALEIGH, N.C. -- As the final whistle sounded in Clemson’s sluggish 26-14 win over NC State on Thursday night, the entire officiating crew sprinted off the field and into a waiting maroon minivan, whisked away into the dark night.
Know who else was happy to escape Raleigh? Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, who opened his postgame news conference by saying, “Glad to get that one over. We can’t load the buses up soon enough.”
No. 3 Clemson (3-0) kept its national championship hopes intact thanks to one huge momentum shift involving said referees. Clinging to a 13-7 lead midway through the third quarter, Clemson watched as NC State receiver Bryan Underwood blazed 83 yards down the sideline like track superstar Usain Bolt, crossing into the end zone as the Carter-Finley Stadium crowd erupted.
One official signaled touchdown in the end zone.
Except another official whistled the play dead, believing Underwood had stepped out of bounds. Because of that whistle, the play was not reviewable. Underwood dashed down that sideline with such speed, it was hard to tell whether he had, indeed, stepped out of bounds in real time. Screen grabs zoomed into Underwood’s cleats showed he might have been out.
NC State instead got the ball at the Clemson 47. Three plays later, Vic Beasley sacked Pete Thomas and forced a fumble that Spencer Shuey recovered. Five plays after that, Tajh Boyd threw a 30-yard touchdown pass to Martavis Bryant, setting the Tigers on their way to the win.
Of course, each coach had a different view of the Underwood play.
“When you’re trying to have a great year, there's always a few breaks,” Swinney said. “The guy stepped out of bounds. That's a tough break for them and a good break for us.”
“That was right in front of me,” NC State coach Dave Doeren said. “He wasn't out of bounds. Unfortunately, they blew it dead, so we couldn't review it. It cost us some points, but you have to move on from that.”
NC State could not move on. The play deflated the energy in the crowd, and the Wolfpack on the field, too. To that point, the game was right there for them to take, giving some flashbacks to what they did to Florida State last season and Clemson in 2011.
Much like the game against the Tigers in 2011, the NC State defensive front befuddled Boyd for the first half. NC State led 7-6 in the second quarter before Clemson scored just before halftime to go up 13-7. Still, the normally high-powered Tigers offense chugged into halftime looking like it needed an entire overhaul.
The third quarter did not begin much better for Clemson, with two three-and-outs to start. But then came the Underwood play. Then, the Beasley sack and strip. Swinney called it “the spark that got us going.”
“The defensive players depend on me to make big plays,” Beasley said. “[They say], ‘Vic, come on, you gotta get there.’”
The response from Beasley?
“Alright guys, I got you,” Beasley said. “I know what the guys are expecting from me.”
In the same way, the offense relies on Boyd to get the offense going. He did not play his best first half. But when he saw what Beasley did, he knew he had to lead his team down the field for a score.
“A field goal wasn't enough in that situation,” Boyd said. “I love field goals, but we want to score touchdowns when we step out on that field. That's just our job.”
Boyd hit Bryant for another touchdown early in the fourth quarter to give the Tigers a 26-7 lead that put the game permanently out of reach.
Shortly after, a staffer came to where ACC coordinator of officiating Doug Rhoads had been sitting in the press box. Rhoads had left his seat after the Underwood play and went down to the field. The staffer packed up Rhoads’ belongings and quietly walked away.
Clemson walked away, too, this time unscathed.
“I think a lot of people were looking for us to have a letdown game or 'Clemsoning' type of game, but I'm confident in the type of team we have. I'm confident in the type of players we have,” Boyd said. “The coaching staff does a great job. Again, it wasn't perfect by any means. It wasn't pretty by any means, but you gotta love going on the road and getting a win.”