‘The Curse is broken:’ State rewrites history in upset of Clemson

RALEIGH — History repeated itself for the NC State football team at Carter-Finley Stadium on Saturday.

And then it didn’t.

Just when it seemed as though the Wolfpack was headed for a painful replay of a 2016 nightmare in which it lost at Clemson in overtime after missing a potential game-winning field goal at the end of regulation, it rewrote the ending.

This time, State bounced back from a demoralizing late miss — a 39-yarder by the usually reliable Christopher Dunn — and an overtime deficit to claim a program-defining 27-21 victory that broke a 10-year losing streak against its ACC Atlantic Division nemesis.

Fans rush the field at Carter-FInley Stadium after N.C. State sealed the double-overtime upset of Clemson on Saturday, September 25, 2021 (THE NORTH STATE JOURNAL)

Devin Leary hit Devin Carter for a 22-yard touchdown in the second overtime, then the defense took over for one dramatic final stop that sent many of the 56,919 in attendance rushing onto the field in an emotional celebration of the most significant victory of coach Dave Doeren’s nine-year tenure.

“The curse is broken, NC State fans. Finally … finally,” Doeren said after his team defeated the six-time defending ACC champions for the first time since 2011. “I’ve been here nine years and seen a lot of crazy stuff. People have talked about it and didn’t believe it, but I’ve got to tell you, I think it was real and it’s not there anymore.”

It didn’t look that way at the end of regulation after Dunn hooked a makeable field goal outside the left upright to send the game into overtime.

The miss was his third of the game and evoked nightmare flashbacks to Kyle Bambard’s similar miss six years ago in Death Valley. The similarities grew after Clemson’s offense, which had been bottled up for most of the entire game to that point, easily scored on the first extra possession.

But Leary answered right back with a short touchdown pass to Thayer Thomas. And after Dunn converted the extra point to extend the game, he went right back onto the field and drilled a 22-yard dart that Carter caught as he was falling down in the back of the end zone.

The Wolfpack (3-1, 1-0 ACC) left the door open for the ninth-ranked Tigers by missing the two-point conversion try, which is now required after the first overtime by NCAA rules. But that only added to the motivation of a defensive unit that limited Clemson to 214 total yards on just 49 plays and allowed it to convert only 2 of 12 third- and fourth-down chances.

“In that last drive, the offense gave us some life when they scored,” said tackle Cory Durden, a transfer from Florida State who responded to his first start at State by recording six tackles and 1.5 sacks. “Everybody on defense was confident because, at the end of the day, we want the game to be on us and that’s where it was.

“The way we went into overtime wasn’t fun, but it’s football. In football you don’t have time to dwell on stuff that’s happened in the past. As soon as we missed that kick, it was like ‘go time defense.’ It’s time to step up.”

And it did, forcing Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei into throwing three incompletions on the game’s final four plays. The last one sailed out of the reach of receiver Justyn Ross, who was well covered by Tyler Baker-Williams and Jakeen Harris in the end zone.

“We didn’t flinch,” Doeren said. “Some teams (say) here we go again. But our guys just say keep playing. Put the ball down. The next play is the play that’s going to win the game.”

This time, it was.

“When I saw the ball sail a little bit wide right, (defensive coordinator Tony) Gibson was on the headset and said, ‘That’s it boys!” Doeren said. “All of a sudden, you see flashes and players running out. Man, it’s a great feeling.”

The Wolfpack had several chances to take control of the game during regulation but, as it has so many times in big spots over the years, couldn’t seem to get out of its own way.

In the first half, State hurt itself with a rash of penalties and a botched trick play that turned into a fumble. And yet it still went into the break tied at 7-7 after Leary hit Emeka Emezie for a 9-yard score late in the first quarter.

It was one of Emezie’s career-high 14 catches for 116 yards and the first defensive touchdown the Tigers (2-2, 1-1) have allowed this season. The Wolfpack then took its first lead with a seven-play, 80-yard drive that ate up a big chunk of the third quarter and ended with a 12-yard pass from Leary to Carter.

Leary finished the game 32-of-44 passing for 238 yards and four scores while leading an offense that maintained possession of the ball for 41:48 of the 60 minutes of regulation play.

More importantly, his leadership helped keep his team on track even as some all-to-familiar adversity began to rear its ugly head — bouncing back from a Will Shipley touchdown that tied the game for Clemson with 11 minutes left, then after a pair of Dunn field goal misses.

But Leary wasn’t the only one that stayed confident through the tough times. Especially at the end.

“I wasn’t here in 2016, but I remember watching it from home,” said linebacker Isaiah Moore, State’s top tackler in the game with eight, to go along with three quarterback hurries. “So when we went into overtime, I looked at the other captains and said, ‘Not again.’ We’re going to win it this time.

“We believed that. The maturity of the team, you saw that the whole game. You just saw a team that’s not going to quit no matter what happens.”

By Brett Friedlander

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