CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — If Clemson’s stop on North Carolina’s 2-point conversion with 1:17 to play Saturday looked familiar, it’s because it did.
Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables called the exact same play with seven seconds left to stop Notre Dame’s potential game-tying 2-point try in 2015. However, Saturday’s stop at Kenan Stadium wasn’t to prevent a potential tie. This time, the call stopped a potential win for North Carolina.
Linebacker James Skalski, safety Nolan Turner and defensive end Xavier Thomas prevented UNC quarterback Sam Howell from getting in the end zone on a sprint-option right to preserve a 21-20 victory for the top-ranked Tigers.
“We just talked about that Notre Dame (game). That little QB-run,” Skalski said afterward. “We were in the same call as a matter of a fact. So, that is funny because Coach Venables was just talking about that. That is the last time we had to stop a two-point conversion like that. It was Notre Dame on that raining night. It was the same defensive call and it was another gang tackle similar to (Notre Dame). It was very similar.”
In fear of saying too much, Skalski did not want to say what the exact call was, but he and the Tigers (5-0, 3-0 ACC) were happy it worked once again.
“We talked about a number of two-point plays in the huddle, but we did not talk about that one,” Venables said. “You like to say, ‘Oh yeah, we had them when we were ready.’
“I think we had a good call on, but we had not (practiced) that exact play. But man, what a great display of will. You can’t coach it and you can’t teach it.”
But you can be good at it.
Saturday’s 2-point stop was the third time Clemson has shut down an opponent’s 2-point play in the final minutes or seconds to win a game. They of course did it against Notre Dame in 2015, as Ben Boulware and Carlos Watkins combined to stop the Irish’s DeShone Kizer with seven seconds left to preserve the victory.
Of course, last year, safety K’Von Wallace intercepted Kellen Mond’s 2-point attempt with 46 seconds to play to secure the win over Texas A&M, and now Skalski and company did the same in Saturday’s win over the Tar Heels.
North Carolina (2-3, 1-1 ACC) put itself in position to win the game when Javonte Williams scored on a 1-yard run with 1:17 to play in the game. UNC head coach Mack Brown did not waste a second in deciding to go for two points.
“There was one guy making that decision and it was me,” Brown said.
Brown said he asked offensive coordinator Phil Longo if he had a two-play that would work.
“I asked Phil, ‘Do you have a play that you think is going to work to score, to win the game, to beat the No. 1 team in the country?’ And he said, ‘yes’ and we ran it and it didn’t work.”
The play was a sprint-out option to the right, but it never really had a chance. Clemson stretched the play out as Xavier Thomas first slowed Howell down and then Skalski and Turner came in to finish the freshman quarterback off.
Howell tried to keep the play alive by throwing the ball backwards to wide receiver Dazz Newsome, who was the pitch man on the play. But like the play, Newsome had no shot either.
“Previously, they had a few tendencies on what they would do. So, we knew there were only a few options on what could happen,” linebacker Isaiah Simmons said. “So, we just read the play out and reacted on what they do.”
And like against Notre Dame, the Tigers called the right play just at the right time.
“We anticipated them trying to go for two there and the guys did a great job of leveraging the ball and getting off blocks and just getting down,” Venables said. “We had one more play to make after the ball was put on the turf and they grabbed it, so we get credit for two tackles on that one.”
In case you are wondering. The two previous times Clemson made a crucial 2-point stop in the final seconds to win a football game … the Tigers have gone on to play for the national championship.
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