CLEMSON, N.C. -- A lot of strange things happened to Clemson yesterday here in Death Valley. Its star tailback injured himself in pregame warm-ups. Its color scheme was altered for the first time in more than 50 years. Its offense even showed up, at least for a little while.
For a little more than a half at Frank Howard Field, the Tigers came out of the offensive funk they have been in recently. After building a 16-point halftime lead on 12th-ranked North Carolina State, their defense and place-kicker did the rest, holding off the previously unbeaten Wolfpack, 29-19, before 81,500.
The victory put Clemson (4-1-1, 2-0-1 in the ACC) solidly in the hunt for its first league championship since 1988 and an invitation to the Florida Citrus Bowl. Its first defeat left N.C. State (6-1, 3-1) searching for answers.
"For the first time this year, we got knocked around defensively," said N.C. State coach Dick Sheridan. "In the first half, they did what they wanted to us. Everything they did offensively clicked."
Playing without Ronald Williams, the ACC's leading rusher this season, Clemson pounded out 256 yards on the ground. The Tigers worked end-arounds and medium-range passes into their normally conservative option offense, and even threw in a fake field-goal attempt en route to their first touchdown.
Behind the play of senior quarterback DeChane Cameron and a record-setting performance by freshman place-kicker Nelson Welch, Clemson scored on six straight possessions -- two touchdowns and four field goals -- to build a 26-7 lead early in the third quarter. Welch later added a school-record fifth field goal to give the Tigers a comfortable 29-13 lead.
"When Ron hurt his knee, it put extra pressure on me," said Cameron, who was running with Williams a half an hour before kickoff when the sophomore tailback sprained his knee. "If we were going to win the ballgame, everyone was going to do a little extra."
Cameron did his part in the first half, completing 11 of 17 passes for 122 yards and rushing 11 times for 83 yards and the touchdown that put Clemson ahead, 14-0. Rodney Blunt, a former starter who replaced Williams yesterday, finished with 74 yards on 25 carries.
But it was the defense, ranked first in the ACC and fourth in the country, that proved to be a consistent force, limiting N.C. State to 10 yards rushing and sacking Wolfpack quarterback Geoff Bender five times. And it was Welch, a redshirt freshman, who proved resilient after missing his first-field goal try early in the game.
"It's a great feeling to set the record because of who I beat," said Welch, whose field goals came from distances of 31, 42, 32, 46 and 41 yards. "Guys like [David] Treadwell and [Chris] Gardocki. I prepared during the off-week to get my mind on what I had to do. I wanted to show the fans and my teammates that I could come back."
Welch, like the Tigers, had gone through a tough stretch. Though he made a 40-yarder with 46 seconds left to tie Virginia two weeks ago, he had missed five of his previous 10 after making his first four. The pressure of replacing Gardocki, who left after his junior year for the NFL, seemed to be getting to him.
But what Clemson coach Ken Hatfield believed to be the key to yesterday's game was the switch in jerseys. After playing in nothing but orange or white since 1962, Hatfield had his equipment manager check into the possibility of purple. Hatfield said it was one of the school's original colors. The Tigers last wore purple in 1939.
"They surprised me with the jerseys on Friday, and when we showed them to the seniors at 10 o'clock this morning, they went wild," said Hatfield. "I think it gave us a real shot in the arm."
"Makes for a good story, I guess," said Frank Howard himself, Clemson's living legend at 82.
What would have made for a pretty good story was if the Wolfpack had stormed back, as they did against Marshall last week. N.C. State had some opportunities to mount a charge against Clemson.
But after a six-inch touchdown dive by Bender pulled the Wolfpack to within 10 with 2 minutes, 31 seconds remaining, a two-point conversion pass sailed long and N.C. State was called offsides on its onside kickoff attempt. The Tigers couldn't quite run out the clock, but the game was all but over.
"We had some good chances in the second half, but I couldn't take advantage," said Bender.
Although Clemson's offense reverted to recent form for most of the second half, Hatfield and his players seem to focus on the change for the better. Particularly in the uniforms, call it the Tigers' purple phase.
But at least one person here didn't seem that impressed.
As he rode down in the elevator following the game, someone asked Clemson's living legend what he thought of the game. Howard, who still chews tobacco and spits out the truth, said without hesitation, "Oh, it was aw-right for awhile."
This man should know. After all, it's his field.