QB change to Cade Klubnik powers Clemson to latest ACC Championship win

After watching this one from the couch last year, the Clemson Tigers are right back on top of the ACC as football champions for the seventh time in eight seasons.

And they can thank Cade Klubnik.

The true freshman from Texas graduated from intriguing backup to quarterback of the future Saturday night, racking up 279 passing yards and two touchdowns in relief of DJ Uiagalelei to deliver Clemson a 39-10 win over North Carolina in Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium.

Klubnik, a former five-star recruit, was lights out from his first drive to his last as he completed 83% of his passes, compiled a 194.7 passer rating and led Clemson to four touchdowns (and five total scores) on six crucial possessions across the first, second and third quarters.

The Tigers (11-2) also got rushing touchdowns from running backs Will Shipley and Phil Mafah and an all-time performance from cornerback Nate Wiggins (two end zone pass breakups, one blocked field goal, one 98-yard pick six) while becoming the first team in an active Power Five conference to win seven outright conference titles in an eight-year span since 1971-79 Alabama.

Outside of the championship trophy it surrendered to Pittsburgh last year, Clemson also wins a trip to the Orange Bowl as the ACC’s auto-qualifier and will likely play an SEC opponent in that New Year’s Six Bowl on Dec. 30.

For the Tigers, Saturday was a return to national relevance after a 10-3 “down” season in 2021 that snapped a six-year streak of ACC championships and College Football Playoff appearances and ended with a win in the Cheez-It Bowl.

But results across college football this weekend also reinforced the obvious: Clemson missed an opportunity — a major opportunity — last month. The Tigers were 8-0 and ranked No. 4 in the CFP Selection Committee’s top 25 rankings in early November with a clear path to the playoff.

Then they finished their regular season 2-2, losing at Notre Dame on Nov. 5 and at home against top rival South Carolina on Nov. 26 to extinguish any chance of a return to the four-team field after missing it in 2021.

Even with a Notre Dame loss on its résumé, Clemson would’ve been in a great spot entering Selection Sunday as a one-loss Power Five conference champion — even more so with Pac-12 favorite Southern Cal and Big 12 favorite TCU losing their conference championship games on Friday and Saturday, respectively.

Instead, Clemson’s headed to the Orange Bowl, with its quarterback situation once again under the microscope.

Swinney named Uiagalelei his ACC championship game starter a day after the South Carolina loss, in which Uiagalelei had a career-worst 27.6% completion percentage and 60.7 passing efficiency rating, and defended him throughout the week.

But, Swinney added, Uiagalelei had “no room for error.” That couldn’t have been more obvious on Saturday, with Clemson benching its starting quarterback after two possessions.

Uiagalelei was 2 of 5 for 10 yards, with one bad underthrow and one bad overthrow, as the Tigers gained seven net yards and went three and out on back-to-back drives.

Trailing 7-0 after Maye’s three-yard rushing touchdown early in the first quarter, Swinney knew “this was the time,” he said during a halftime interview with ABC. He benched Uiagalelei for Klubnik on Clemson’s third possession – the earliest Klubnik has subbed in this season by far.

All Klubnik did was complete 5 of 5 passes for 50 yards and a touchdown, finding tight end Davis Allen for a one-yard score and propelling Clemson back into the game. Immediately.

For Clemson, it only got better from there. Maye fumbled the ball after a miscommunication with his running back, and defensive tackle Ruke Orhorhoro recovered it at UNC’s 23-yard line.

After a nifty trick play that saw running back Phil Mafah complete a 19-yard pass to Klubnik, Mafah scored a four-yard rushing touchdown to put Clemson up 14-7 after one quarter.

North Carolina, a top 20 team in essentially every offensive statistic this season, had its chances. But too often the Tar Heels came up empty, like when a 17-play, 61-yard second quarter drive ended with zero points after Wiggins blocked Noah Burnette’s 31-yard field goal.

The Tigers followed up that special teams stop with a 68-yard dime from Klubnik to freshman receiver Cole Turner – Clemson’s longest passing play all season – and a one-yard rushing touchdown from Klubnik to go up 21-7.

The ACC foes traded field goals – 25 yards from UNC’s Burnette and an ACC championship-best 52 yards from Clemson’s B.T. Potter – for a 24-10 halftime score.

With Klubnik leading a humming offense and Clemson’s defense rounding into full form, the blowout really got on in the third quarter. UNC got all the way down to Clemson’s five-yard line, with a chance to get within a possession, before Maye threw an ill-advised pass falling out of bounds and Wiggins intercepted it.

The sophomore cornerback, who’s been getting better and better for Clemson since some early season struggles against Wake Forest, returned it 98 yards for a touchdown and holder Drew Swinney ran in the ensuing two-point conversion to put Clemson up 32-10.

It was a deflating turnover for a UNC team that lost its third consecutive game after starting 9-1 and reaching a school-best No. 13 ranking in the College Football Playoff Top 25.

And if it didn’t end any and all chances of a comeback, Shipley’s two-yard rushing touchdown to end the third quarter did. Clemson led 39-10 after that touchdown, and that final margin didn’t budge through a scoreless fourth quarter.