Oct 24, 2002
By Tony Haynes
Clemson, S.C.--It was strong, decisive and emphatic. NC State's 9th ranked football team made a statement on Thursday night, one which should put a muzzle on some of its critics. With a national television audience watching on ESPN, the Wolfpack improved to 9-0 for the first time in school history by trouncing Clemson in Death Valley, 38-6.
Once again, the Pack showed it is fully capable of winning in any number of ways. First, there was the power running of freshman T.A. McLendon, who tallied a career-high 178 yards rushing and two touchdowns. Then there was a defense that held Clemson (4-4) to just 229 yards of total offense. The Tigers' offense, in fact, was completely shutout. Clemson's only score came on an 80-yard kickoff return by freshman Justin Miller in the fourth quarter. And of course, the Pack's special teams got into the act by producing a blocked punt that resulted in NC State's first touchdown.
"To be 9-0 is something that has never been done in the more than 100-year existence of this school," said Wolfpack head coach Chuck Amato. "Just as important, we're 4-0 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The ESPN people told me before the game that the L.A. Times and the Chicago paper called us frauds. I hoped that we could fraudulently be 9-0 when this game was over, and we are. It's really great for the NC State fans."
And the fans that made their way to Death Valley showed their gratitude after the game by mobbing the entire Wolfpack team at midfield. It was an unlikely scene in one of college football's most intimidating venues.
At the beginning, the throaty Clemson partisans showed they were ready by sending decibel levels to deafening heights. But they were quickly silenced by an unlikely Wolfpack hero. Using every inch of his 6-5 frame, freshman linebacker Manny Lawson stretched out to block a Tigers' punt. The ball was scooped up by Terrence Holt, who scooted 38 yards for the score with 4:51 to go in the first period. The stunning development was followed by a little trickery on the extra-point, as the Pack caught Clemson napping when center Danny Young quickly snapped the ball back to holder Chris Young, who dashed to the right corner of the end zone for a two-point conversion. Not only did the plays give the Pack an 8-0 lead, they also muffled the announced crowd of 74,000.
"When you go to a stadium like this, where the crowd is a 12th man, you've got to take them out of the game," Amato said. "You've got to do it with defense and let your offense get some points on the board. But that blocked punt by Manny Lawson was huge, there's no doubt about it."
Said Holt: "Manny's been making plays all year. He's so long that he can get in there in two steps and layout and get to the punts. It's just a credit to our whole attack team; everybody goes hard and puts the pressure on their man. Manny was able to beat his man and come up big. We knew that to win that we would need to get the crowd out of the game early. It's so loud here that you can feel your body vibrating sometimes."
Armed with an 8-0 lead, the Wolfpack turned to another one of its prized freshmen to produce another big play. On fourth and one from the Clemson 31, McLendon took off on a counter play to the left and didn't stop running until he had crossed the goal line for his 13th touchdown of the year. The run, which came with 13:31 remaining in the second quarter, gave NC State a 15-0 lead.
Then, following a Clemson turnover, quarterback Philip Rivers made it 22-0 with a quarterback sneak from one-yard out. From there, the Wolfpack would leave it up to a defense that would play its finest game of the season. Employing six defensive backs most of the night, NC State kept the Clemson offense off-balance with a variety of changing coverages and blitzes.
Whether it was Willie Simmons or Charlie Whitehurst at quarterback, the Tigers could never come up with a formula that would allow them to sustain drives.
"I've always said that we won't be great until we play great defense," Amato said. "Tonight we played great defense for 60 minutes."
Even more frightening for NC State's future opponents is the fact that the Wolfpack dominated Clemson on a night when Rivers had the lowest output of his career. The junior quarterback finished 15-of-21 for 129 yards and one interception.
McLendon added his second touchdown of the night on a four-yard run midway through the fourth quarter.
Then came a bizarre exchange. After colliding with Derrick Hamilton on the ensuing kickoff, Miller picked the ball off the ground and rambled 80 yards for Clemson's only points. Seconds later, however, the Wolfpack's Jerricho Cotchery grabbed an attempted onside kick in stride and sprinted untouched for a 44-yard kickoff return of his own.
It was that kind of night for the Pack. Check that: it's been that kind of year for the Wolfpack.
"There couldn't have been a better stage to do it on," said Holt, who added a fumble recovery and interception to go along with his touchdown return on the blocked punt. "It was on national TV and everybody was watching. We just wanted to capitalize on the stage and have a great performance."
A performance that certainly made a statement.