Despite several miscues, top-ranked Tigers still found a way to win
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Head coach Dabo Swinney always tells his team, “Don’t let Clemson beat you.”
Well, the Tigers almost did exactly that on Saturday in Chapel Hill.
No. 1 Clemson (5-0, 3-0 ACC) made a slew of mistakes against North Carolina (2-3, 1-1) but managed to overcome them and found a way to win a 21-20 thriller over the Tar Heels at Kenan Stadium.
“We just couldn’t really get out of our own way,” Swinney said after the game.
Clemson’s laundry list of miscues included, but wasn’t limited to, six pre-snap penalties, a missed field goal, fumble, missed tackles, dropped interceptions and two allowed fourth-down conversions on UNC’s final drive of the game.
Nonetheless, the Tigers came up with enough big plays to earn the victory — including the go-ahead 38-yard touchdown pass from Trevor Lawrence to Tee Higgins with 9:54 remaining in the fourth quarter, and the subsequent stop on North Carolina’s 2-point conversation attempt that helped seal the win.
“We obviously made enough mistakes to lose the game,” Swinney said. “I’d probably say they probably outplayed us, and we had a lot of mistakes – a lot of critical, critical errors at critical times. But when we had to make a play, we made it, and that’s what winners do. So, just really proud of our guys. This is a game that we certainly can learn a lot, and we will. We’ll grow from it.”
After North Carolina wide receiver Dyami Brown beat Clemson cornerback A.J. Terrell on a double move and hauled in a 40-yard touchdown pass from Sam Howell for a 7-0 lead on the fourth play of the game, the Tigers proceeded to go on an 8-play, 40-yard drive to get into scoring position.
However, B.T. Potter missed wide left on a 40-yard field goal attempt, and the Tigers couldn’t get on the scoreboard.
Later in the first quarter, following a 13-yard touchdown run by Travis Etienne that tied the game at 7, it was Etienne who made a costly error.
After a three-and-out by the Tar Heels gave Clemson the ball back, Etienne lost a fumble that was recovered by UNC’s Jason Strowbridge at Clemson’s 42-yard line. Four plays later, Howell connected with Beau Corrales on a 10-yard touchdown pass that gave UNC a 14-7 lead with 7:55 left in the first half.
“You could see right there in that situation, he spun in traffic and as he was going down, he took his off hand to brace his fall, where he should have had two hands on the ball,” Clemson co-offensive coordinator and running backs coach Tony Elliott said, explaining Etienne’s fumble.
“I’ve just got to challenge him to just get back to being Travis, not trying to do too much. He might be pressing a little bit, trying to make every play the play as opposed to going back to our mentality where if you take the base hit, take the base hit, and then the home run’s going to come if you’ve got that level swing.”
The Tigers had no shortage of issues before the snap, with half a dozen pre-snap penalties including several false starts by the offensive line. Left guard John Simpson was called for two in the third quarter.
The false starts proved especially detrimental on a couple of occasions in the second half.
On Clemson’s first drive of the third quarter, a false start by left tackle Jackson Carman on third-and-1 backed the Tigers up on a drive that would end in a turnover on downs. On Clemson’s ensuing possession, a false start by Simpson on third-and-6 put the Tigers in a third-and-long situation and led to a punt following an incomplete pass from Lawrence.
Elliott said Clemson’s offensive line was thrown off by the pre-snap stemming and movement from UNC’s defensive front.
“I think that North Carolina did a good job,” Elliott said. “You have to give them credit — they were making some move calls, they were moving right before the snap. Obviously, when you’re on a silent count, you don’t know when the ball’s going to be snapped. So, they saw some movement and false started.
“So, it gives us an opportunity to evaluate what we’re doing on a silent count and then challenge these guys that every single play… They just went through a game where any given play, it could’ve been the play that was the difference in the game.”
Clemson’s missteps extended beyond the playing field to the coaches’ box as well.
Elliott admitted he did not make the right play call on the the third-and-one play prior to Potter’s missed field goal, a screen pass from Lawrence to Amari Rodgers that went for no gain.
“I know I made a bad call,” Elliott said. “I should have taken the RPO option off of that first third-and-one there in the red zone that resulted in a missed field goal.”
Despite all the bad in Saturday’s game, Clemson found a way to win and that’s the bottom line for the Tigers.
“At the end of the day, a one-point win is just like a 50-point win. There are no ugly wins,” Elliott said. “So, we’re excited to get the win, but it is a great opportunity for us to teach our guys going into the open date. Every game’s not going to be easy, but at the end of the day, it’s our job to take care of our business, and if we don’t lose to Clemson, we’ll be a tough out.”
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