No. 1 Clemson escapes after yet another heartbreaking finish for UNC

ACC FB: Clemson 21, UNC 20

Peter Koutroumpis, Triangle Sports Network
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NCAA FB: No. 1 Clemson 21, North Carolina 20

By R.L. Bynum, @rl_bynum

CHAPEL HILL — The fourth quarter has been full of magic for North Carolina all season. But, for the third consecutive game, the Tar Heels couldn’t quite come up with enough in the end.

An impressive 16-play, 75-yard drive set Carolina up for a potential go-ahead two-point conversion attempt. Quarterback Sam Howell’s run around the right side came up short and No. 1 Clemson escaped with a 21–20 victory Saturday at Kenan Stadium.

It was the closest the Tigers (5–0, 3–0 ACC) have come to losing a game since losing 24–6 to Alabama in the 2017 College Football Playoff championship.

If the Tar Heels proved anything, it’s that they can play with any team in the country. And this was supposed to be a transition year in anticipation of the huge recruiting class that will arrive next season.

Clemson had given up only two rushing touchdowns and two passing touchdowns combined in the first four games. UNC had two touchdown passes and one via the run.

All five games for UNC (2–3, 1–1) have come down to the final plays, and it could just as easily be 5-0 as it could be 0-5. Nobody expected the 27.5-point underdog Tar Heels to produce another heart-stopping finish, but they did just that. 

The Tar Heels had no interest in battling the Tigers in overtime, and Coach Mack Brown made gutsy decisions during the entire fourth quarter. The long drive that set up UNC to possibly win included two fourth-down conversions. The second conversion was on a dart of a Howell pass to Dyami Brown for 12 yards after looking off the defense. A big 22-yard run by Javonte Williams set up a 1-yard TD run from him with 1:14 left.

Brown said that he didn’t hesitate to go for two once offensive coordinator Phil Longo told him there was a play he thought would work.

“My job is to decide what is the best chance for our team,” Brown said. “I’ve always had the theory that the longer the game goes, the best team wins and they have the best team. So, my thought was go for it now with that momentum. They’re tired, they’re on the field and that was the best chance for us to win the game.”

Howell rushed for a key fourth-quarter two-point conversion in the season-opening victory over South Carolina, but couldn’t find the goal line this time.

“Sam fought his guts out to get in,” Brown said. “You work on two-point plays all the time and Phil was very confident. If he had said he wasn’t sure, we kick.”

Just like the Appalachian State game, UNC started well, this time with a 75-yard, four-play drive that took 1 minute and 45 seconds and produced a 40-yard touchdown pass from Howell to Dyami Brown.

UNC’s Jason Strowbridge recovered a rare fumble from Clemson running back Travis Etienne to set up the second touchdown. A 31-yard Michael Carter run cranked up a scoring drive that finished with Beau Corrales’ 15-yard scoring reception.

Big plays and four-play drives led to the Tar Heels’ first-half scoring drives while Clemson put together a 10-play touchdown drives, netting scoring runs from Etienne and quarterback Trevor Lawrence.

UNC led the game for 22 minutes and 54 seconds in the first half. Before this game, Clemson had only trailed against Texas A&M, and even then for only 3 minutes and 26 seconds.

Clemson finally hit a big play with 9:54 left in the game on a 38-yard scoring pass from Lawrence to Tee Higgins for the Tigers’ first lead of the game.

The Tigers’ defense kept the pressure on Howell. Screens generally didn’t work as well and he was sacked three times, including twice in the same third-quarter possession. This may have been Howell’s least accurate passing game overall, but he still finished 15 of 27 for 144 yards and two touchdowns.


Keeping the heat on Lawrence

Lawrence can pick apart a defense if he gets much time in the pocket. UNC defensive coordinator Jay Bateman did everything he could to make sure that didn’t happen very often.

Bateman used a variety of methods to keep pressure on Lawrence and make it difficult for him to get comfortable. For stretches in the second half, he wasn’t sharp, either underthrowing or overthrowing receivers.

Lawrence finished 18 of 30 for 206 yards and a touchdown.

Chazz Surratt did his share of work in this pursuit. He broke up a pass on one third-down play in the first half and got a huge third-down sack with 6:45 left in the second quarter. He also tipped a third-down pass with 7:01 left in the third quarter. Late in the third quarter, he nearly sacked Lawrence, who barely threw it away in time.

“Chazz had a great game,” Coach Brown said. “It was as good of linebacker plays as I’ve seen in a long time, so I’m very proud of him. He should get better every week.”

Surratt finished with a team-high seven tackles, one sack, broke up two passes and hurried Lawrence three times.

UNC held Clemson to its fewest points since scoring only six in the 2017 title game against Alabama.

A clean game is just what UNC needed to have a chance

After damaging turnovers set up opponent touchdowns in the losses to Wake Forest and Appalachian State, UNC knew it couldn’t turn the ball over to have a chance against Clemson.

The Tar Heels didn’t turn it over and, thus, had a chance. The closest UNC came to a turnover was when it failed to convert on a fourth-and-one in the fourth quarter.

Injuries still hampering the Tar Heels

The good news on the injury front for North Carolina is that senior Charlie Heck was back at left tackle.

The rest of the news wasn’t good. Junior defensive back Myles Wolfolk, who snagged his third interception of the season last week before getting hurt in the loss to Appalachian State, missed the game and is out indefinitely with a lower-body injury. 

Also out indefinitely with a lower-body injury is backup quarterback Jace Ruder, who got hurt on his only play against Appalachian. Ruder and senior center Nick Polino, who has been out since the South Carolina game, were wearing walking boots. Ruder needed two crutches to get around and Polino needed one.

Defensive lineman Aaron Crawford went down early in the fourth quarter after possibly taking a knee to the head from teammate Cam’Ron Kelly. Kelly soon headed to the dressing room.


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