No. 3 Clemson hosts No. 16 N.C. State in key ACC battle

Clemson Tigers running back Travis Etienne will face N.C. State on Saturday.Photo Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Given recent history, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney is taking nothing for granted when his No. 3-ranked Tigers host No. 16 N.C. State on Saturday at Memorial Stadium.

Despite the fact that Clemson has won six in a row against the Wolfpack and opened as a 17-point favorite, don’t expect Swinney to chalk this one up in the win column until the final seconds have ticked off the clock.

“It wouldn’t matter if they were 6-0 or 3-3 or 1-5 — it’s Clemson vs. N.C. State and it’s always a great game,” Swinney said. “They always get excited to play the Tigers and we always get excited to play them. It ought to be a lot of fun.”

The last few games between the teams certainly have been. Last season, Clemson rallied from a 21-17 halftime deficit and withstood a 338-yard, three-touchdown passing day by N.C. State’s Ryan Finley to hold off the Wolfpack 38-31.

Two years ago, N.C. State missed a 33-yard field goal at the end of regulation and the Tigers escaped with a 24-17 overtime victory en route to the national title.

This season’s game, which is set for a 3:30 kickoff Saturday at Clemson’s Memorial Stadium, could be another classic in a series that has seen the Tigers prevail 24 times by a touchdown or less.

No. 3 Clemson is 6-0 overall and 3-0 in the Atlantic Coast Conference, marking its fourth consecutive 6-0 start and sixth in the last eight years. N.C. State, which is ranked 16th, is 5-0, 2-0.

Both teams are coming off open dates.

“It’s going to be a big game, man,” Swinney said. “There are not many undefeated teams left out there and you’ve got two of them facing off Saturday in the valley. It’ll be two teams who are passionate about winning.”

The main charge for Clemson’s defense, which ranks third nationally in total defense, will be containing Finley, a savvy quarterback who leads the ACC in almost all passing categories. His top two receivers — Kelvin Harmon and Jakobi Meyers — rank first and fifth in the league, respectively.

“This quarterback is a pro — a legit pro,” Swinney said of Finley. “I don’t know when he’s going to be drafted, but it’ll be early.

“He has complete ownership of what they do. He does a great job of manipulating the defense and he knows where to go with the ball. He’s a very gifted thrower, very accurate.”

N.C. State’s defense faces a tall task as well — namely, slowing down a Clemson rushing attack that has exceeded expectations. Led by sophomore running back Travis Etienne, the Tigers have risen to near the top of the FBS in rushing at 280.8 yards per game, trailing only a trio of option teams — Georgia Tech, Army and Navy.

Etienne has logged four consecutive 100-yard games and has rushed for 654 yards over that span, averaging a gaudy 10.2 yards per carry.

Backups Adam Choice and Lyn-J Dixon are both coming off 100-yard games as well at Wake Forest and Tavien Feaster — who had an 89-yard touchdown run against N.C. State last year — is averaging 5.1 yards per attempt.

“We know we can throw and catch,” Swinney said. “But it has been a long time since we’ve been able to run the football like we are right now.”

That hasn’t gone unnoticed by N.C. State coach Dave Doeren, whose team is riding a seven-game winning streak dating back to last season.

“The tailback position is really dynamic,” Doeren said. “And I think Etienne is a fun guy to watch. He’s fast, he gets to top speed in a hurry. He sees things well and he’s definitely somebody that you’ve got to be really concerned about tackling, getting him on the ground.

“Then the guys who come in after him all average over five yards per carry, which is impressive.”

Saturday’s winner would have the inside track to the ACC’s Atlantic Division title and berth in the ACC Championship Game on Dec. 1.

“We’re excited to have that kind of opportunity in October against a really good team,” Doeren said. “I have a lot of respect for Dabo, his staff, their program and what they’ve done for our conference. For us it’s an opportunity to go play them when they’re playing really good football.”