CHARLOTTE – North Carolina’s players were sure to take their hats off to No. 1 Clemson University.
The Tigers, the undefeated champions of the ACC Atlantic Division, showed why they are the top-ranked team in the country, making the plays when they had to en route to a 45-37 win over the Tar Heels in the ACC Championship Game.
“They’re the number one team in the country for a reason,” UNC defensive tackle Nazair Jones said. “I thought it was all hype and they showed why they are the number one team in the country.”
Clemson scored on three consecutive possessions to bridge the second and third quarters, breaking open a tight game, making the Heels have to work to even make the final score respectable in the end.
The Tigers led 21-16 at the break, but really got rolling in the third quarter. Clemson cornerback Cordrea Tankersley picked off UNC quarterback Marquise Williams on the opening drive of the second half. The Tigers then marched 97-yards and scored on a three-yard run from Wayne Gallman, putting Clemson up 28-16. After the Tigers’ defense forced a fourth down, Carolina tried to pick up the first down on a faked punt that failed, giving a Clemson team suddenly with momentum the ball on the 36-yard line. The Tigers only needed two plays to make UNC pay, going up 35-16. That din’t put the final nail in the coffin, but it made things difficult for the Heels, who struggled to get an offensive rhythm most of the night.
“That’s best team I’ve ever played in my entire life, I won’t lie,” U
NC running back Elijah Hood said about the Tigers. “That is a very good football team. But I think we have a very good football team.
But for them to come out there and earn a victory like that, I would put them up there as the number one team.”
The Tigers compiled 608 yards of total offense and were led by game MVP Deshaun Watson, who rushed for 132 yards and passed for 289, accounting for five touchdowns. When Watson wasn’t picking apart the Heels’ defense, his backfield mate Wayne Gallman was doing just as much damage, rushing for 192 yards on 28 carries.
“We didn’t wear down physically, we just made too many mental errors,” Jones said. “That’s what pushed us over the limit. They were scoring at will towards the second half.”
North Carolina got off to a quick start, jumping ahead 9-7 after one field goal and a 46-yard pass from Williams to T.J. Logan. It was only the second time all season Clemson trailed after the opening quarter. The Tigers got on the board on their second drive when Watson hit Gallman for a 16-yard pass.
Watson used his legs to get Clemson back in front, leading the Tigers on a 96-yard drive (second longest in ACC Championship game history) breaking off a big run of 33-yards on third down, and capping the drive off with a 9-yard run to make it 14-9.
Carolina went back in front, 16-14, when Williams (11-33, 224) found Ryan Switzer for a 3-yard score, but the Tigers countered two drives later, getting a score – 1-yard pass from Watson to Jordan Leggett – with two seconds remaining on the clock before halftime.
“Big play, ended up with two seconds, and that’s kind of what I thought on that play would be if we didn’t get it, there would be a couple seconds left, or at least one, and we could kick the field goal,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “But I just felt like it was the right call in that situation.”
That call gave the Tigers a comfortable lead to start the second half, a lead that got more comfortable after North Carolina turned the ball over to start the third and Clemson score twice in the quarter to go up 35-16.
But the Heels weren’t done.
Carolina pulled to within eight when Williams snuck in from the one. The Heels surrendered another TD, a run by Watson, then pulled to within 12 after a short run from Hood. After a Clemson field goal, things really got interesting. Williams hit Switzer for a 17-yard score with 1:02 remaining. Carolina’s only hope was to recover an onside kick … which they did, apparently. But the Heels were called for an offsides, giving the ball back to Clemson. The play was reviewed, however television replays don’t show a UNC player pass the line.
“It isn’t going to change,” Heels’ coach Larry Fedora said. “It doesn’t matter one way or the other, so I’m going to to have to swallow it like a man and just take it, and that’s the way it is. We came up short. That doesn’t take anything away from what Clemson did tonight because they’re a dang good football team. They’re the No. 1 team in the country and you’ve got to give them credit, and we’ll be pulling for them.”
Clemson, obviously, will be the top-ranked team in the four-team playoff, the only undefeated team in the top four.
“It’s a hard thing to do,” Swinney said. “Like I said, in 1992 we were 13-0 and we were national champions, but that don’t get it done anymore. You’ve got to keep playing. And that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”
The Heels will keep playing as well, perhaps the Russell Athletic Bowl in Florida. Wherever they turn up, the 11-2 UNC squad will be ready to right the wrong of this recent performance in Charlotte.
“I’m excited that we fought today,” Williams said. “We came out and fought to the end. That’s what I love about this team. So what I didn’t win. I like the outcome of my team.”