CHARLOTTE – Clemson captured its seventh ACC championship in eight seasons with an emphatic win over North Carolina on Saturday at Bank of America Stadium. Here are four sequences that went a long way in determining the outcome, a turning point and a telling stat from the Tigers’ 39-10 victory.
- Clemson started the game with two quick three-and-outs. Meanwhile, UNC took an early lead when the Tar Heels methodically moved 78 yards on 11 plays on its opening possession capped by Drake Maye’s short touchdown run. In a hole and the offense sputtering early with D.J. Uiagalelei behind center, Clemson turned to freshman quarterback Cade Klubnik, who helped bring the offense to life by leading a nine-play, 71-touchdown drive on the Tigers’ third possession. Klubnik went 5-for-5 passing on the drive, including a 1-yard capper to Davis Allen in the back of the end zone to draw Clemson even with 1 minute, 41 seconds left in the opening quarter.
- It didn’t take long for Clemson to continue building on its momentum late in the first quarter thanks to some opportunistic defense. UNC started its next possession at its own 25-yard line, but the Tigers got the ball back to their offense two plays later when Maye pulled the ball down and took off again. This time, Maye lost his grip on it and put it on the ground. Ruke Orhorhoro pounced on the fumble for Clemson, setting the Tigers’ offense up with its shortest field of the night at UNC’s 23-yard line. The Tigers dialed up a throwback pass to Klubnik, who rumbled inside the 5. Phil Mafah than capped the quick scoring drive with a 4-yard touchdown plunge to give Clemson its first lead of the night with 35 seconds left in the first quarter.
- With Clemson leading 14-7 early in the second quarter, it looked like UNC might at least cut into the deficit when the Tar Heels drove into Tiger territory, particularly when Maye converted a third-and-long with an 18-yard completion after Clemson decided to accept a facemask penalty on UNC’s quarterback on the previous play. Clemson eventually forced a 31-yard field-goal attempt, but Nate Wiggins came off the edge untouched and blocked it. Clemson’s offense kept the Tigers’ momentum going with one first down, and then Klubnik found freshman receiver Cole Turner behind the defense for a 68-yard bomb to UNC’s 1. Klubnik trotted into the end zone untouched on the next play to cap a wild sequence of events and give the Tigers their first two-score lead at 21-7 with 6:02 left before halftime.
- Clemson took over possession at its own 14 late in the third quarter with a 32-10 lead and delivered the knockout blow with its longest scoring drive of the night. A 16-yard connection between Klubnik and Joseph Ngata moved Clemson into UNC territory, and Brannon Spector followed with an explosive when he hauled in a short pass along the sideline and raced 43 yards to the Tar Heels’ 15. Shipley punched it in from 2 yards out two plays later to make it 39 unanswered points for the Tigers with less than a minute remaining in the third quarter.
UNC started the second half facing a fourth-and-1 near midfield and was going to go until a false start penalty forced the Tar Heels to punt. The teams exchanged miscues when a pass attempt slipped out of Klubnik’s hand for a fumble. Clemson recovered, but it killed the Tigers’ first possession of the second half deep in their own territory, and UNC got the ball back at midfield after a punt. The Tar Heels looked poised to cut Clemson’s lead to one possession when they reached Clemson’s 5 seven plays later. But on third-and-goal, Maye dropped back and scrambled to his right trying to buy time. He eventually threw toward the front corner of the end zone, but Nate Wiggins was the closest player to the ball. He intercepted it and returned it 98 yards for a crucial 14-point swing that gave the Tigers a 32-10 lead after a successful two-point conversion with 5:50 left in the third quarter.
Telling stat: 3
That’s how many fewer turnovers Clemson had than UNC. One could certainly make a case for Klubnik’s 279 passing yards or 83.3% completion rate, but one of the Tigers’ most glaring issues down the stretch has been its inability to hold onto the ball with 15 turnovers in their previous five games. But after three straight games of three turnovers, Clemson didn’t turn it over against the Tar Heels, which never gave UNC the help it was going to need to get back in it once Clemson started taking control. Meanwhile, Clemson forced three of its own, giving the Tigers their first victory in the turnover margin since their mid-October win at Florida State. Clemson scored 14 points off of them with Wiggins’ 98-yard pick-six in the third quarter being the longest scoring play in ACC title game history.
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