Following a stagnant start for Clemson offensively in Saturday’s ACC Championship Game against North Carolina, the Tigers turned to Cade Klubnik at quarterback.
The true freshman replaced starter DJ Uiagalelei midway through the first quarter and provided an immediate spark, igniting the ninth-ranked Tigers to a 24-10 halftime lead over the No. 23 Tar Heels at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.
After back-to-back three-and-outs on Clemson’s first two possessions, Klubnik came in for Uiagalelei with just under six minutes left in the first quarter and the Tigers trailing by seven points.
Clemson (10-2, 8-0 ACC) managed just 7 yards across the two possessions with Uiagalelei at the helm. But after Klubnik came in, he led the Tigers on three consecutive touchdown drives, going 7-of-7 passing for 127 yards and two total touchdowns in the process.
Klubnik finished the first half 10-of-11 for 149 yards with the two scores, adding four carries for 32 yards, and didn’t have an incompletion until 19 seconds left before the break.
Klubnik’s first possession saw him move the Tigers down the field in impressive fashion on a nine-play, 71-yard drive, finished off by Klubnik’s pretty 1-yard touch pass to tight end Davis Allen in the back of the end zone that tied the score at 7-7 with a little less than two minutes remaining in the opening frame.
Klubnik started 5-of-5 passing for 50 yards and a touchdown, with one carry for 8 yards to boot on the first drive he led.
North Carolina (9-3, 6-2) fumbled a handoff exchange on its ensuing possession, and after defensive tackle Ruke Orhorhoro recovered the fumble for Clemson, it took the Tigers just two plays to score again and claim the lead.
Klubnik had a catch-and-run of 19 yards on a trick-play throw from running back Phil Mafah, who then rumbled into the end zone from 4 yards out to give Clemson a 14-7 lead with 35 seconds left in the first quarter.
North Carolina responded with a long 17-play, 61-yard march and seemed poised to at least cut into Clemson’s deficit after possessing the ball for more than seven minutes and moving into the red zone. But after the Tar Heels had to settle for a field goal attempt following a pass breakup by cornerback Nate Wiggins, Wiggins blocked the field goal try to keep UNC from scoring.
Klubnik then connected with true freshman wideout Cole Turner on a beautiful 68-yard deep bomb, setting up Klubnik’s 1-yard touchdown run on the next play, extending Clemson’s advantage to 21-7 at the 6:02 mark of the second quarter.
The pass to Turner was Clemson’s longest play from scrimmage this season.
After Clemson took the opening kickoff and went three-and-out on its first possession, North Carolina struck first the first time it had the ball, marching 78 yards in 11 plays for a 7-0 lead.
UNC quarterback Drake Maye, the ACC Player of the Year, capped off the five-minute-plus drive with a 3-yard touchdown run at the 8:50 mark of the first quarter. The redshirt freshman began the game 5-of-6 passing for 47 yards with three carries for 18 yards and the score.
However, after the fast start, UNC managed just three points over its next four possessions on a 25-yard field goal by Noah Burnette that made the score 21-10 with 1:20 left before halftime.
B.T. Potter answered back with a 52-yard field goal, matching his career long, as time expired in the first half.
Maye completed 15 of his 22 passes for 156 yards in the first half.
North Carolina will receive the second-half kickoff.
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