CLEMSON, S.C. - Clemson coach Tommy Bowden came to the Tigers on the strength of his offensive mind. But it has been his defense that has turned things around the past two seasons.
Clemson forced six turnovers - as many as the Tigers had in their first seven games - to beat North Carolina State, 26-20, on Saturday.
Suddenly a Clemson team that started the season 1-4 has won three in a row and is back in the bowl picture, while the Wolfpack (4-4, 3-3 Atlantic Coast Conference), with 16 turnovers in their past four games, might have watched their bowl chances slip out of their hands.
Even with all the mistakes, N.C. State still had a chance to win. The Wolfpack drove the ball to the Clemson 12 with 29 seconds to go, but Jay Davis threw three straight incompletions before defensive end Charles Bennett picked off his fourth-and-10 pass as the clock ran out.
"It's amazing we had a chance to win at the end even though we had five turnovers," Wolfpack coach Chuck Amato said. "I've never experienced anything like that."
The Tigers' defense, which had allowed less than 200 yards in the past two games, gave up 381 yards Saturday. But they got big plays when they needed it on a day when the Tigers (4-4, 3-3) gained just 267 yards.
"That's our responsibility - to carry the team if the offense hasn't been clicking," said Justin Miller, who had two interceptions.
One of Miller's picks came in the end zone at the end of the first half. Tackle Eric Coleman ran back another interception 20 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter.
The defense also forced one N.C. State fumble, and appeared to have picked up two more, but officials called the plays dead.
It's similar to last year when Clemson's defense suddenly came alive, leading the team to four straight wins to end the year.
It's enough to make coach Tommy Bowden wish he had concentrated more on defense during his six years at Clemson.
"I wish I could depend on the defense like that every week," Bowden said. "I would have won a lot more games."
Special teams came up big for the Tigers too, as Jad Dean made all four of his field goals.
The offense continued to sputter as Charlie Whitehurst was 14-for-33 for 183 yards. The junior hasn't thrown for 300 yards in a game this season after beginning his career with six 300-yard-plus games in his first 17 starts.
"He's having some trouble," Miller said. "We just try to get the ball back to him as much as we can."
ACC leading receiver Airese Currie had seven receptions for 108 yards, but fatigued in the near-record heat as temperatures rose to the 80s by the end of the game.
Clemson now goes to Miami before ending the season at Duke and against South Carolina in Death Valley. The Tigers must win two more games to get Bowden to a bowl for the sixth time in six seasons.
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