With a big hand from the defense, Tajh and his Tigers found a way

One of these games, Boyd is going to have another one of those dazzlers...What he did Thursday may prove to be more significant

Clemson's Tajh Boyd passes against N.C. State during the first quarter at Carter Finley Stadium in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Photo by Ken Ruinard

Clemson's Tajh Boyd passes against N.C. State during the first quarter at Carter Finley Stadium in Raleigh, North Carolina.

It wasn't easy.

It wasn't pretty.

It doesn't matter.

Clemson got the job done. The Tigers' third victory may have come in unorthodox fashion, especially for a team used to rolling, flowing and scoring almost at will.

But there is a reason to feel better about the Tigers' 26-14 victory over N.C. State Thursday at Raleigh than about Clemson's 62-48 win over the Wolfpack at Death Valley last November.

In a word: D.

"Man, I love winning on defense," Dabo Swinney gushed after the Tigers' hard-fought, hardly-perfect victory. "I'm exhausted. I feel like I played every snap. Every single play was a battle for four quarters."

Much like last season's milestone win over LSU, in fact.

The scenario was one that might well have led to an upset loss. N.C. State's defensive front took the battle to the Tigers early, displaced the line of scrimmage, and sent Tajh Boyd scurrying for his life.

Boyd, perhaps affected by the lack of protection, then misfired on two should-have-been-touchdowns - one to Sammy Watkins, one to Martavis Bryant, both of whom were running unfettered behind the Wolfpack secondary.

He threw high, he threw low, he threw not-well-at-all. And then he sat on the sideline during a defensive series with pain and frustration written all over his face.

Swinney came over for a word.

The Tiger defense kept putting the ball in Boyd's hands.

And eventually, the tide turned.

A well-thrown third-and-long connection with Watkins provided a spark, and then, after a new-look shift, Boyd delivered a touchdown pass to tackle-eligible Sam Cooper, who went low and secured the football.

In the second half, Boyd & Company got the rest of the job done, with considerable help from Clemson's defense.

And so the Tigers move on, 3-0, and back home this week for homecoming and Wake Forest.

"It's the most important game of the year," Swinney said.

And yes, he always says that. He says it because he believes it. And his Tigers believe him.

If Clemson runs the still-long table and gets a shot at the national championship, it will happen a game at a time, just like it did Thursday night.

Wins count more than style points. And both the Tigers and their quarterback would probably be better off should college football's punditry turn its attention back to Johnny Football and Alabama and Oregon, and leave Clemson to just go about its business.

That's not likely. But, as Swinney keeps telling his team, it shouldn't matter.

"The goal was to get to 3-0 and we took care of our business," Swinney said Thursday night. "You never really know what you've got with your football team until you go on the road, especially when you have some adversity. I thought we responded.

"We had some dumb mistakes and things we have to learn from. But it's early in the year. We're 3-0 and 1-0 in the division, and the season starts tomorrow. We've got to get ready for Wake Forest, and I look forward to being back in the Valley."

As for Boyd, he showed again that he's capable of delivering whatever it takes to win, even if the winning is ugly.

"He was a warrior," defensive line coach Dan Brooks said of Boyd's performance against LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl last December.

He could have said the same again Thursday night.

One of these games, Boyd is going to have another one of those dazzlers - 450 passing yards and half a dozen touchdowns - and when he does, he'll jump back on the Heisman Hype Escalator.

What he did Thursday may prove to be more significant.

Clemson's win over N.C. State was in every phase a team victory. And Boyd, at heart, is a team kind of guy.

That's why he came back.

"Offensively, in the first half we missed some huge opportunities," Swinney said. "But then we settled in. Tajh came back and ended up having a heck of a game with three touchdowns. Martavis Bryant was awesome. Sammy was everywhere. Our backs ran hard. And our offensive line was a difference in the game for us down the stretch. They took it over and we were able to run the ball when we had to.

"Overall, our defense was the difference in the game.

"That's what great teams do - they find ways to win," he added. "Tonight, we had to call on our defense to hold serve, and they did, time and time and time again. There was only seven points on the board until 3:54 left in the game.

"We ended up over 50 percent on third down, which was a difference in the game. And then defensively, they were only 3-of-16. That was the difference in the ball game - we just kept getting stops and giving the ball to No. 10. And when you do that, eventually he's going to find a way to win."

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