North Carolina’s trip to Death Valley proved to be a football death by a thousand cuts Saturday — or so it seemed.
The No. 22 Tar Heels were beaten 31-20 by the Clemson Tigers on a day when so many things went wrong for UNC. Whether turnovers, bad penalties, poor tackling or fourth-down gambles that failed, the Heels had a little of everything hurt them as they fell to 8-3 overall and 4-3 in the ACC with a game left at N.C. State next week.
Clemson led 14-7 at halftime and controlled the second half on Senior Day at Memorial Stadium. UNC got a 55-yard scoring run from Omarion Hampton – who fumbled at the end of a 64-yarder in the first half – in the third quarter but couldn’t hold back the surge of the Tigers (7-4, 4-4).
Hampton, who had not fumbled this season in more than 200 carries in the first 10 games, fumbled twice. The ACC’s leading rusher had a 3-yard fourth-quarter TD run and finished with 178 yards on 19 carries.
It was a tough game for Maye, who was hoping to atone for the drubbing by Clemson in the 2022 ACC championship game. The sophomore was 16-of-36 passing for 209 yards and had his last throw picked off.
Here are three takeaways from the game:
What could have been for UNC
The Tar Heels could have a hard time shaking the memories of a troublesome, frustrating first quarter at Clemson. They could have – maybe should have – led 21-0. Instead it was 7-0.
Maye had a 43-yard pass to Tez Walker to the Clemson 3 – and Hampton fumbled. Maye had a 33-yard TD throw to J.J. Jones. Hampton ran 64 yards, then fumbled into the end zone before crossing the goal line for a touchback.
The Heels’ defense stopped a fake punt. They did a number of things right. But the quarter ended 7-0. The Tigers survived it, and moved on from there to their third straight win in what has been an impressive late-season resurgence by a program that has known little but success.
Klubnik answers QB challenge
Most prognosticators gave UNC a solid edge at quarterback. Drake Maye or Cade Klubnik? Maye would be the pick.
But Klubnik, like many quarterbacks against the Heels this season, picked his spots and made timely plays. A pass here, a run there.
Maye had a hard time hooking up with receivers. The Clemson secondary had tight coverage and there was little separation allowed. Maye connected on a couple of deep strikes early but UNC’s Walker, Bryson Nesbit and others struggled to get open and pull down balls while Maye also had a few misfires.
Klubnik’s biggest play came in the final seconds of the first half. On third down from the UNC 3, Klubnik could not find an open receiver, scrambled, stretched the ball toward the goal line and scored. The play was reviewed – it was a close call, was the knee down first? – but the touchdown stood with three seconds remaining for the 14-7 lead.
Klubnik completed 21 of 32 passes for 219 yards, without a pick, in an efficient performance.
Thank you, Tyler
Remember that radio caller to the Dabo Swinney radio show? “Tyler in Spartanburg” was the name, yes?
Since questioning Swinney’s coaching, and immediately drawing the ire from the Clemson head coach on the air, the Tigers have been proving a lot of people – including “Tyler” – wrong on the field and getting on a late-season roll.
The Tigers manufactured a victory Saturday by taking advantage of the myriad of UNC mistakes and with some big plays of their own on offense. Late in the third quarter, after Hampton had broken off a 55-yard TD run, Clemson’s Will Shipley darted his way to a 33-yard run and score.
Shipley, like Hampton, had a key fumble in the red zone in the first half. But in what could be his final game in a Clemson uniform (the junior took part in the Senior Day ceremonies), the running back supplied a critical touchdown.
Shipley had a 36-yard catch early in the fourth quarter to the UNC 9, leading to a field goal and 31-14 lead. If it was his exit game, it was a good one.