Was he in? Was he out?

Was he in? Was he out? N.C. State fans likely have an opinion. Clemson fans surely do, too.

They'll likely be arguing for quite a while in Raleigh whether Bryan Underwood's right foot touched any part of Carter-Finley Stadium's right sideline midway through the third quarter Thursday night.

Well, N.C. State fans will, at least.

Clemson fans will be too busy speeding out of the Triangle, with relieved, sheepish looks painted on their faces.

Thursday night, they got the kind of break that can keep a special season alive. An unbeaten season alive. A national title season alive. The final score will show No.3 Clemson 26, N.C. State 14, with the Tigers improving to 3-0 and the Wolfpack falling to 2-1 in both teams' ACC openers.

The play that mattered came with 7:43 left in the third quarter: "Bryan Underwood rushes for 36 yards."

On the surface, it looked like so much more.

My naked eye – and my DVR – showed Underwood stayed in bounds for a sideline tightrope-walk of an 83-yard touchdown.

Carter-Finley was alive. N.C. State was about to take a 14-13 lead on a sluggish Clemson team, sending "Clemsoning" alerts into full bleat.

But… wait, just a minute.

Officials ruled that Underwood had stepped out of bounds at the Clemson 47. The play was blown dead, and could not be reviewed, by rule, since it was outside of the five-yard line.

So, the ball moved back to the 47. Two plays later, Vic Beasley strip-sacked N.C. State quarterback Pete Thomas, with linebacker Spencer Shuey recovering.

"I definitely think we got lucky on that one," Shuey said of Underwood's run. "I'm not sure if he stepped out of bounds or not. I couldn't tell on the Jumbotron. But that's what they called. "If they would have scored on that one, they would have had all of the momentum. Luckily, he stepped out. The umpire was there to see that."

Five plays later, Tajh Boyd connected with wideout Martavis Bryant for a dagger of a 30-yard touchdown and 20-7 Clemson lead.

Say goodnight, Wolfpack. The swing defined the evening – and kept Clemson's hopes of a national title run alive, for at least one more night.

"It was a tough play for them and a huge play for us," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "You've got to get a couple of breaks through the course of the season. It's just football."

In or out? TV replays all indicated he stayed in bounds. A closeup on this still shot could indicate otherwise.
It was the kind of break that Clemson hasn't gotten in seasons past.

Clemson's history has been a wide-open Sammy Watkins slipping in the end zone at Georgia Tech two years ago, leading to an interception that helped end an 8-0 start.

It's a busted coverage leaving a Boston College receiver wide, wide open for Matt Ryan to throw a killer touchdown in 2007.

There's a reason that the "Clemsoning" meme is harder to kill than Jason Vorhees: it's rooted in reality.

ESPN color analyst Jesse Palmer was obstinate in his refusal to let "Clemsoning" die on Thursday's telecast, but Clemson had to win games like Thursday – and have moments like that third-quarter swing – to quiet Palmer (even then, unsuccessfully).

Because, let's face it: after a 12-day break, the Tigers were flatter than a Nebraska prairie. And after the first 30 minutes, nobody would have blamed Swinney if he unleashed a rant on his team like the two-year old secretly-taped tirade from Nebraska coach Bo Pelini unearthed by Deadspin this week.

Clemson was quite fortunate to hold a 13-7 lead despite perhaps its worst half since its last trip to Raleigh.

The Tigers' offensive line struggled mightily opening holes and giving Boyd time: after whiffing on a pair of sacks on the opening drive, starting right tackle Gifford Timothy was yanked and replaced with sophomore Shaq Anthony.

That didn't work, either, as senior left tackle Brandon Thomas moved to right tackle – just as he did in the Chick-fil-A Bowl – with sophomore Isaiah Battle sliding in at left tackle.

Boyd was scattershot at best, throwing above receivers and at their feet.

For a while, it looked a bit like N.C. State 37, Clemson 13, a game where the Tigers actually had a 3-0 lead after one quarter but collapsed in a hail of second-quarter turnovers and mistakes. This night was different. The core of the team that suffered through that embarrassment has had two years to mature and learn how to muddle through difficult nights. Nights when you aren't necessarily at your best.

Clemson only outgained N.C. State 414-377, but the Tigers' defensive line consistently harassed Thomas, with junior Vic Beasley and freshman Shaq Lawson particular revelations.

The Tigers converted 10 of 19 third downs while holding State to three of 16. And while Boyd didn't have his best night, he still completed 24 of 37 passes for 244 yards and three touchdowns, with no interceptions.

And Clemson forced 2 turnovers while committing none.

Was it pretty? Not especially. Did the Tigers win any style points with national voters? Nope. Will it matter in December? Unlikely.

Dabo Swinney's bunch got a break. They built on it. And they won't be looking back anytime soon.

CUTigers.com Top Stories