Defense’s stop on Tar Heels' 2-point try for the win seals Clemson victory
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Clemson’s defense allowed North Carolina to drive the ball 75 yards in 16 plays while eating up 8 minutes and 32 seconds. But when it mattered the most, with the game on the line, they rose up.
With 1:17 to play in the game, North Carolina running back Javonte Williams scored on a 1-yard run in what looked like the game-tying touchdown. But head coach Mack Brown decided to go for the win instead of tying the game and possibly going into overtime.
Quarterback Sam Howell rolled to his right and before he could pitch the ball defensive end Xavier Thomas hit him and then linebacker James Skalski and Nolan Turner finished him off to prevent the successful try as No. 1 Clemson hung on for a 21-20 victory at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill on Saturday.
“I am unbelievably proud of our guys for finding a way to win because that is what it is all about,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said afterward. “We obviously made enough mistakes to lose the game. I can probably say they outplayed us and we had a lot of mistakes … a lot of critical, critical errors at critical times.”
The Tar Heels (2-3, 1-1 ACC) converted two fourth downs on the drive against a Clemson defense that stymied them for much of the afternoon. UNC had just 190 yards going into the final quarter.
North Carolina’s on-side kick attempt bounced off of Derion Kendrick’s hands but then bounced out of bounds to allow the Tigers to retain possession. The Tigers then went into the victory-formation to end the game.
The Tigers’ stop on the 2-point conversion was not the defense’s first big stop on Saturday. They made a critical fourth-down stop on its own 45-yard line on the Tar Heels’ previous possession, and then Trevor Lawrence threw a 38-yard touchdown pass to Tee Higgins. B.T. Potter’s extra point turned out to be the eventual game-winner with 9:54 to play.
The Tar Heels moved the ball past midfield following a couple of Michael Carter runs. On second-and-1 from the 45, Skalski nearly picked off a pass and then on back-to-back plays Isaiah Simmons teamed up with his friends to stop the Tar Heels for no gain, including a Williams’ run on fourth-and-one.
Lawrence quickly moved the Tigers (5-0, 3-0 ACC) into UNC territory and on third-and-6 from 38, the sophomore found Higgins down the seam, where the 6-foot-4 receiver adjust to an under-thrown ball and raced into the end zone for the go-ahead score. It was Clemson’s first lead of the game.
Lawrence finished the afternoon 18-of-30 for 206 yards and with no turnovers. Higgins led the Tigers with 6 catches for 129 yards.
Clemson tied the game in the second quarter on a 13-yard Travis Etienne touchdown. The junior running back, who ran for 67 yards on 14 carries, went right up the middle untouched on second-and-goal to tie things up at 7 with 12:43 to play in the first half.
Etienne’s touchdown was set up by a 31-yard pass from Lawrence to Justyn Ross that moved the ball to the UNC 10-yard line. The scoring drive covered 89 yards in 10 plays.
The Tigers had some momentum after the touchdown, but North Carolina’s Jeremiah Gemmel stripped Etienne of the football and the Tar Heels recovered at the Clemson 42. UNC then got a 31-yard run from Michael Carter to the Clemson 11.
On third down-and-nine from the Clemson 10, Howell scrambled to keep a play alive and found Beau Corrales wide open over the middle for a touchdown. That gave the Heels a 14-7 lead with 7:55 to play in the first half.
The Tigers tied the game again, this time at 14, with 33 seconds to play in the first half when Lawrence ran 3 yards up the middle on a quarterback draw. It was a 10-play, 78-yard drive that took 4:28 off the clock.
Lawrence ran the ball 11 times Saturday for 45 yards.
Clemson converted three first downs on the drive as Lawrence stepped away from the blitz and scrambled 16 yards for a first down on third-and-4 from his own 28. Later in the drive, on third-and-nine from the UNC 27, he avoided the blitz again up the middle, rolled to his left and threw a dart 17 yards to the Tar Heels’ 10.
On third-and-goal from the 3-yard line, Lawrence again came through, running three yards for the touchdown on the quarterback draw.
Lawrence went 3-for-3 for 45 yards on the drive and had three rushes for 25 yards as the two teams went into the locker room tied at 14.