CHAPEL HILL, N.C. –– As the match between Miami and Louisville began to wind down yesterday afternoon, North Carolina’s hopes of a repeat ACC title appearance slipped away as the Cardinal’s pulled off a big upset at Hard Rock Stadium.
The No.9-ranked Cardinals ran out the clock, winning the game with a stop against Van Dyke’s hail mary pass short of the endzone, clinching a 38-31 victory and in the process – the final slot for the title game in two weeks. It will be the first time in program history that the Cardinals have made the ACC Championship game and there’s no doubt it will be a promising showdown as they face an undefeated, No.5-ranked FSU squad.
And to think there wasn’t gonna be any icing on the top. The Tar Heels fell to 8-3 on the season with a 31-20 loss at Clemson, their third loss in four games. 20 points also marks UNC’s lowest scoring total of the season, as they entered the fourth quarter with a 14-point deficit to the Tigers.
The difference maker in this game was UNC’s mistakes on their offensive drives.
It wasn’t too long ago that UNC head coach Mack Brown was telling us a story about his ‘poisoned cheese’ method to motivate his players to approach games with discipline and caution, but last night shed light on an array of sloppy play from illegal motions to fumbles to false starts. It was messy.
Omarion Hampton was the main offensive producer for the Tar Heels, running for 178 yards, his sixth consecutive 100-yard game, along with two scores. However, he fell into some trouble after two fumbles near the goal line in the first quarter of the game.
Those fumbles were missed scoring opportunities that would have given UNC the scoring advantage. But something just didn’t look right last night and this offense as a whole didn’t look like the stellar playmakers we’ve grown comfortable with these past eleven weeks.
Drake Maye threw for just 209 yards, his fourth lowest output of the year and Clemson’s defense showed no signs of holding back in pass rush. The unit gave Maye his lowest completion rate of the year (44.4%) and sacked him four times. He finished with one touchdown and one interception.
But while it was an uncharacteristic night for him, he’s still a superstar quarterback who’s thrown some killer dimes under pressure this year and led the Tar Heels to otherwise impossible victories. And Omarion Hampton is still one of the most storied running backs to ever don the Carolina blue uniform.
It was impossible to ignore that mood shift after the first half, it was like they had lost their edge and for the rest of the ballgame. Clemson dominated on the ground and put UNC’s weaknesses on a pedestal.
These past couple of weeks have been reminiscent of last season’s disastrous end and yesterday only propelled that narrative, as their inability to respond to adversity has cost them not just the title game, but a place in the AP Top 25 poll and the possible departure of veteran players who could focus their sights towards the 2024 NFL Draft after next week’s final match against NC State.
Senior linebacker Cedric Gray is the only player to confirm such intentions as of right now.
The Tar Heels will play their last game of the regular season on Nov. 25th at 8:00pm at Carter-Finley Stadium. They are challenged with fixing their offensive woes if they want to grab one last win, but things aren’t gonna be easy on that front and the Wolfpack traditionally have had the upper hand – winning two of the last three meetings including back-to-back wins. In 2021, they grabbed a 34-30 victory on their home turf and the following year a 30-27 double overtime win in Kenan Stadium.
If North Carolina wants to strive for one final win, they’ve got to lock down their red-hued rivals, and they fix whatever’s in the air so they can bid farewell on a higher note.