A promising season at Clemson had come to this: Kyle Parker, the star quarterback who gave up at least $800,000 from the Colorado Rockies for one more season with the Tigers, was riding the bench after another interception.
Coach Dabo Swinney let Parker sit for several plays because of his wildly inconsistent play, and even his offensive coordinator figured he was done. But Parker got one more chance, coming back in to rally the Tigers to a 14-13 victory over No. 23 North Carolina State on Saturday.
"If there's any game that kind of just represents what this kid had done here with his time at Clemson, I think today pretty much sums that up," Clemson offensive coordinator Billy Napier. "I'm proud of him, and he knows that."
The loss appeared to be a big blow for the Wolfpack's chances to win the ACC, until a loss a few hours later by Florida State put them back in control of their own destiny. Clemson's win also kept them in contention for the league championship game for a second straight year.
While Parker struggled, his defense kept the Tigers (5-4, 3-3) in it. They held the Wolfpack (6-3, 3-2) to 275 yards, more than 180 yards below their average.
Napier probably felt he needed to praise Parker following the game, especially after a mix-up between Swinney and Napier meant Parker didn't know he was being pulled until he saw backup Tajh Boyd take the field.
That wasn't the only mistake the Tigers made.
They fumbled five times, losing two of them, threw an interception, had a touchdown called back on a holding penalty and missed two short field goals. Punter Dawson Zimmerman got a game ball because he made a one-handed grab on a punt snap that was several feet off target with Clemson clinging to its narrow lead with three minutes to go.
"We've played some good football and lost. We've had our share of that," said Swinney, who is 3-9 in games decided by a touchdown or less. "It's not against the rules to win ugly."
North Carolina State had its share of mistakes. Manning returned an interception for a touchdown, but it was called back for a block in the back. The Wolfpack lost a fumble and got just 13 points from five trips into the Clemson red zone — Russell Wilson threw a pick in the end zone and Josh Czajkowski had a 30-yard field goal try blocked.
Czajkowski made field goals of 28 yards and 27 yards, and Wilson's 3-yard TD pass to running back Mustafa Greene provided all the points for a team averaging 37 per game coming in.
It was obvious Clemson's defense shook the faith Wolfpack coach Tom O'Brien had in his offense. Facing fourth-and-1 at the Clemson 43 with just over three minutes to go, O'Brien decided to punt and pin the Tigers deep. It wound up traveling just 4 yards.
"We didn't make it on third-and-1, so I didn't have a lot of faith we were going to make it on fourth-and-1," O'Brien said.
Wilson went 22 for 36 for 212 yards and was his team's leading rusher with 29 yards. Seven different North Carolina State players caught passes with tight end George Bryan leading the team with four catches for 51 yards.
Marquan Jones had six catches for 47 yards and DeAndre Hopkins caught five passes for 90 yards and a touchdown for Clemson.
The Wolfpack can still make it to their first ACC title game if they can beat Wake Forest, North Carolina and Maryland. The Tigers also have ACC title game hopes as long as they win out and North Carolina State and Maryland lose at least one more time.
The Wolfpack expect to win out and can shake this loss off fairly easily because they made errors that are easy to correct, defensive tackle J.R. Sweezy said.
"There were a lot of mistakes in this ball game today," Sweezy said. "It just didn't go our way. That's the way football is."
Clemson didn't solve a lot of its offensive woes. The running game struggled for just 46 yards with leading rusher Andre Ellington out with a toe injury and backup Jamie Harper fighting a virus that had him throwing up at halftime.
It wasn't enough to keep Harper out of the game as he scored the winning touchdown with a 3-yard run with 6:18 to go.
"It's been the kind of year where things are going to happen and I think it really speaks a lot of this team to not quit," Parker said. "It would have been extremely easy especially how this game started to pack it in and go home."