One sequence — a referee's whistle, a turnover and a touchdown — changed everything for North Carolina State in its first Atlantic Coast Conference game under coach Dave Doeren.
The Wolfpack hung with No. 3 Clemson through the first half Thursday night and appeared to have momentum on Bryan Underwood's long sideline run for a touchdown. But a referee ruled him out of bounds, then Clemson capitalized on an N.C. State turnover in a game-changing sequence in the Tigers' 26-14 win.
TV replays appeared to show Underwood staying just inside the sideline for an 83-yard score to tie the game, but the whistle made the play unreviewable and gave the ball to the Wolfpack at the Clemson 47. Pete Thomas fumbled on a sack three plays later, then Tajh Boyd threw a 30-yard touchdown pass to Martavis Bryant to make it 20-7.
"It's just disappointing when have a big play like that and it doesn't count," Doeren said. "You've just got to move on. You can't complain about things you can't control. ... Unfortunately it cost us some points."
Doeren said the call came right in front of him and that Underwood didn't step out.
"You've got to get some breaks throughout your season if you're trying to have a great year," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "We got a couple breaks, there's no question about it. ... That's a tough break for them, and a good break for us."
For Clemson (3-0, 1-0 ACC), Boyd threw for 244 yards and three touchdowns, two to Bryant. On the second, Bryant snatched the ball from defender Niles Clark for a 15-yard score that helped the Tigers make it a three-possession game.
Sammy Watkins added 10 catches for 96 yards on a night when Clemson's explosive offense didn't manage many big plays yet finished with 415 yards.
Shadrach Thornton scored the Wolfpack's first touchdown on a 21-yard run in the second quarter. N.C. State (2-1, 0-1) led 7-6 at that point but couldn't complete the upset.
The Tigers entered Raleigh with their highest ranking in 25 years and a prime spot in the national championship chase. They also came with memories of their inexplicably bad performance here two seasons earlier, when the Wolfpack scored 27 second-quarter points en route to a 37-13 rout of the then-No. 7 Tigers.
N.C. State followed that win with an upset of No. 3 Florida State here last year, and Doeren — the former Northern Illinois coach — said that history gave his veterans confidence they could do it again.
But N.C. State's hopes of beating a Top 10 team at home for the third straight season essentially ended in that frustrating sequence midway through the third.
The Underwood call led to boos raining down from the Carter-Finley Stadium stands and continued until after Bryant's second score made it 26-7 with 11:27 left.
Sam Cooper added an 11-yard touchdown catch with 2:23 left in the second quarter that gave the Tigers a 13-7 halftime lead they wouldn't relinquish.
Thomas threw for 213 yards on 20-for-36 passing for the Wolfpack. He ran for a 4-yard score to cap a 23-play scoring drive with 3:50 left.
N.C. State finished with 378 total yards, but failed to convert its first eight third-down tries and finished 3 for 16 for the game.
Clemson reserve left tackle Isaiah Battle was ejected for a late shove to the facemask of N.C. State's Jarvis Byrd with 1:33 left.
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