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Clemson vs. North Carolina: The Tar Heels Push the Tigers to the Limit But Fall Just Short 21-20

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Clemson shoots themselves in the foot over and over as a well-prepared North Carolina team nearly pulls off the upset, falling just one point shy of the win.

Clemson v North Carolina
UNC won the battle in the trenches today.
Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Clemson returned to Chapel Hill for the first time since 2010 to take on the North Carolina Tar Heels. With the return of coach Mack Brown and early season wins against South Carolina and Miami, Tar Heels fans were feeling optimistic for the first time in years, but losses to Wake Forest and Appalachian State has tempered that optimism a bit. Could the Tar Heels get back on track against the Tigers? Clemson fans and unbiased observers didn’t give UNC much of a chance, but we all know how college football can get crazy at times.

Clemson won the toss and deferred, and UNC took over at the 25 after the touchback. The Tar Heels picked up 8 yards on 1st down but the Tiger defense limited the 2nd down run to a yard. On 3rd & 1, coverage broke down and the UNC RB took a flare pass down to the Tiger 40. On the next play, the Tar Heels struck with a pass down the sideline as A.J. Terrell was beaten for the TD. UNC led 7-0. Joseph Ngata ran the kickoff out to the Tiger 35. Amari Rodgers picked up 2 yards on first down and Travis Etienne picked up 6 on 2nd down. Trevor Lawrence kept it on a read option and got the 1st down. Justyn Ross picked up a 1st down to the Tar Heel 30 on a crossing route with great protection by the offensive line. He picked up a couple more on 1st down. Lawrence picked up 6 on 2nd down to set up 3rd & 2 at the 22. Lawrence hit Rodgers on a hitch pass, but it was well defended by UNC. B.T. Potter tried to hit the FG but it was wide, wide left and the Tigers were still down 7-0.

NCAA Football: Clemson at North Carolina
Amari Rodgers fights for yardage.
Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

UNC picked up 4 on first down and the Tigers got pressure on Tar Heel QB Sam Howell on 2nd down forcing him to throw it away. A flare pass on 3rd down was well defended by the Clemson defense for a 3-yard loss and UNC punted. Clemson took over at their 33. Etienne picked up a couple of yards on 1st down but Lawrence threw an out route at Ross’ feet to put the Tigers at 3rd & 8. Lawrence tried to hit TE J.C. Chalk but the Tar Heel defender saw it all the way and knocked it down. Clemson punted and UNC took over at their 24.

NCAA Football: Clemson at North Carolina
Justyn Ross eludes a UNC defender.
Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

The Tar Heels picked up 4 yards on 1st down and a 2nd down pass bounced on the ground before the receiver could get under it. Review confirmed the call and UNC faced 3rd & 6. A nicely executed (and poorly defended) screen got 1st down yardage. The Tar Heels picked up another 12 yards on the next play out to their 48. A run and short pass set up 3rd & 2 and UNC picked it up in a run right up the middle behind their big offensive line. From the Tiger 42, Howell tried to hit a crossing receiver but Isaiah Simmons knocked down the pass and on the next play Howell rolled out and hit his RB but the Tigers swarmed him for a loss. On 3rd down, Simmons and Tanner Muse collided as they defended a pass down the middle. Simmons was shaken up on the play but he was ok. UNC punted and Rodgers fielded it at the Tiger 11.

An illegal substitution penalty and a no-gain Etienne run put the Tigers at 2nd & 15. Lawrence then made a laser throw to Tee Higgins at the sideline for the 1st down. Lyn-J Dixon picked up 4 out to the 26. Another Dixon run set up 3rd & 4 as the 1st quarter expired. Lawrence hit Higgins for 16 yards on a back shoulder fade. Dixon then picked up 9 yards out to the UNC 47. Etienne picked up 6 yards to move the chains. Lawrence then hit Ross down the middle for X yards to the 9. Then a goofy looking play lost 3 yards as Lawrence and his receivers appeared to be doing different things than the other expected. The the Tiger play callers got smart and just gave it to Etienne and he ran it in from the 13 yard line. The game was tied 7-7 with 12:43 left in the half.

NCAA Football: Clemson at North Carolina
Trevor Lawrence picks up yardage against the Tar Heels.
Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

UNC started at their 25 after the touchback. On 1st down, Jordan Williams got to Howell for the sack. A good run got most of the sack yardage back, leaving UNC at 3rd & 9. Terrell had good coverage on the sideline throw and the Tar Heels had to punt. The Tigers took over at their 28. Etienne picked up 9 yards on 1st down but fumbled on 2nd down and UNC recovered at the Tiger 42. On 1st down, the Tiger linebackers got blocked and the UNC RB picked up 31 yards to the 11. A short pass picked up 4 yards but a false start penalty pushed them back to 2nd & 11. UNC tried to run up the middle but James Skalskie stuffed it. On 3rd down, the Tigers almost got to Howell but he managed to flick it to an uncovered receiver coming across the middle who walked into the end zone. UNC was up 14-7 with about 8 minutes left in the half.

Etienne ran wide left and picked up a couple of yards. Lawrence tried to hit Rodgers but the ball sailed over his head. On 3rd & 8, UNC brought a blitz and they got to Lawrence. After a false start, Clemson punted and the fair catch was made at the Tar Heel 40 yard line. A false start, a nice tackle by Muse on 1st down and a well-covered wide run led to 3rd & 14. UNC couldn’t complete the 3rd down pass and punted it down to the Tiger 22. Lawrence hit Diondre Overton on a hitch but it went nowhere. Etienne picked up 5 yards on 2nd down. On 3rd & 5, Lawrence scrambled out to the Tiger 49. Lawrence then hit Higgins for 28 yards down to the Tar Heel 28. Lawrence scrambled up the middle to avoid pressure but was sacked for a loss of 1 on 1st down. Etienne couldn’t get much on 2nd down as the officials missed a face mask. On the next play we saw Lawrence at his best as he avoided pressure and rolled left and hit Higgins at the 10 yard line. He picked up another 6 on a run and on 2nd down Etienne picked up another yard to set up 3rd & goal. Lawrence then ran it up the middle and scored. With 33 seconds left in the half, the game was tied 14-14. UNC ran a couple of plays and the clock expired.

NCAA Football: Clemson at North Carolina
Travis Etienne breaks free.
Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

Ngata took the short kickoff out to the Tiger 36. On 1st down, Lawrence hit Rodgers on a short pass and moved the chains. Etienne picked up 2 yards on 1st down and another 4 on a short pass on 2nd down. On 3rd & 4, the Tigers committed a false start and had to deal with 3rd & 9. Lawrence hit Higgins for 14 yards to get the 1st down at the Tar Heel 39. Lawrence looked for Chalk down the middle but couldn’t connect. Etienne picked up 9 on 2nd down. But on 3rd & 1 Jackson Carman committed another false start. On 3rd & 6, Lawrence had Ross open down the middle but overthrew him. The Tigers went for it and Lawrence tried to hit Higgins but led him just a little too much. UNC took over at their 35. The Tiger defense played well and forced 3rd & 11 and UNC couldn’t convert it. The punt sailed 63 yards into the end zone for the touchback.

A rollout pass to Chalk picked up a first down to the Tar Heel 30. Etienne picked up 4 yards on 1st down. Cornell Powell looked to have a lot of space on a pitch to the left but the Turf Monster got him for no gains. Another false start made it 3rd & 11 and a Tar Heel defender got Lawrence’s arm on the throw and it fell incomplete. Will Spires had a nice punt that was fair caught at the UNC 26. The Tar Heels picked up 4 yards and not much else on their possession. They punted down to the Tiger 10.

Dixon picked up 5 on 1st down but Lawrence’s pass on 2nd down was knocked down at the line. On 3rd down, Higgins was open but a Tar Heel defender got a hand on it at the last second. Spiers’ punt rolled down to the UNC 31. UNC had a nice run for 12 yards on first down, but two sacks killed the Tar Heel possession, and they punted down to the Tiger 30.

Clemson v North Carolina
A.J. Terrell corrals a UNC player.
Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

On 1st down, Lawrence had Ross open again and sailed it over his head. On 2nd down he hit Etienne on a screen but a UNC defender got to him. On 3rd down, Lawrence was nearly sacked and the Tigers had to punt. The fair catch was made at the UNC 29. The Tar Heels picked up a yard on 1st down and the 3rd quarter ended with the score still 14-14.

UNC moved into Tiger territory as the Tar Heels went uptempo. The Tiger defense finally stiffened and forced 4th & 1, and UNC went for it. They didn’t make it. Maybe this would be the momentum-turning moment of the game? Lawrence took it on a run to the right for 7 yards into UNC territory. He rolled left on 2nd down and had to throw it away. On 3rd & 3 he hit Chalk in the flat for the 1st down at the UNC 42. He picked up 7 yards running and got sacked to put the Tigers at 3rd & 6 (after yet another false start). Then he hit Higgins on a fly down the left hash for the 38-yard touchdown. Clemson led 21-14.

NCAA Football: Clemson at North Carolina
UNC QB Sam Howell had a good game against the Tigers.
Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

UNC took over at the 25 and got nothing on a wide run to the left. Xavier Thomas almost got to Howell for a sack but he scrambled free to pick up 5 yards, setting up 3rd & 5. A crossing route got them 13 yards for the 1st down. The next pass fell incomplete and Nolan Turner got a TFL on the Tar Heel RB to make it 3rd & 12. They picked up 11 and UNC went for it on 4th & 1. Howell picked up the needed yardage to move the chains to the Tiger 46. The 1st down pass was incomplete and poor tackling let the RB pick up 8. On 3rd down, the Tigers got a TFL to set up 4th & 4 and they connected on a crossing route to get the 1st down. A short run up the middle gained a couple of yards as the clocked ticked under 3 minutes. Another run set up 3rd & 2. Then the UNC RB got free after a missed tackle and ran down to the to the Tiger 3 yard line, with uptempo catching the Tigers off guard again. Howell hit his TE to the left very close to the goal line, maybe 6 inches out. UNC then ran it in with 1:14 left. The Tar Heels decided to go for the 2-point conversion, but Xavier Thomas and Skalskie got to Howell before he could get to the end zone. UNC tried the onside kick but Clemson covered it. Lawrence then kneeled on it a couple of times to end the game.

Yep, the upset bug was swarming around all game. The Tar Heels came prepared and their crowd kept getting to the Tiger offensive line. This one was ugly for the Tigers. Very ugly. A week off next week comes at a good time. Clemson has a lot of stuff to work on. Check back with us over the next few days as we go over today’s game in depth. Let us know what you think of today’s performance by the Tigers in the comments section below and thanks for stopping by.