It certainly appears that Clemson has finally figured out how to play winning football this season after two strong performances in a row. The road to redemption continues with #20 North Carolina and their high-octane offense coming to town to face Clemson’s rapidly improving defense and power running game.
The Tigers can’t do anything about the myriad of self-destructive errors that strongly contributed to all four losses, but they can try to put those in the rear view mirror by winning out, and even moreso by winning out decisively. They took a big step last week by blowing out a red hot Georgia Tech team and put Haynes King through the ringer. The Tar Heels are more talented and feature perhaps the top draft prospect at quarterback in Drake Maye. Clemson passed last year’s test with him with flying colors, but those points, the pick six, etc. don’t carry over to this game.
Clemson offense vs. UNC defense: I’ll start with this side as both team’s “weak” spots are found here. UNC was very fortunate to escape last week’s game with Duke and benefitted from a few questionable officiating decisions to say the least. Nevertheless, they still found a way to win against a team the Tigers couldn’t beat in week 1. Of course, Clemson hammered the Yellow Jackets and UNC couldn’t beat them either. College football is really more week to week than ever in these transfer portal times.
UNC started their year looking like a much improved defense when they repeatedly sacked Spencer Rattler and shut down the Gamecocks in Charlotte. However, they have been much more boom or bust since then and have given up a lot of points to several teams, including Duke playing with their backup quarterback last week. They do have some good pieces, particularly middle linebacker Cedric Gray, but they tend to wear down considerably as the games go on. It will be important for Clemson to not let UNC jump on them so that wearing down can occur.
Clemson is taking better care of the football and playing a lot better up front. Trent Howard struggled badly early last week but Dabo was a man of his word and they went with new guys until things got straightened out. Colin Sadler played great, as did Blake Miller. and Phil Mafah and Will Shipley looked like the duo of doom Clemson fans expected to see all year long. Cade Klubnik was efficient other than one interception and made the best throw of his career on an absolute laser to Briningstool for a TD. Tyler Brown delivered one of the best catches in Clemson history for a TD as well. The screen game looked the best it has looked since probably 2019 or 2020. With this defense, Clemson’s offense doesn’t need to be elite, just efficient and physical to win field position and take advantage of red zone opportunities. They are doing that now and will need to do so again. Clemson’s offense taking off with Cade coming off the bench helped force UNC into a one dimensional approach to try to stay in the game last year.
Duke really hurt UNC on the edges with their running game. The Tar Heels are stronger in the middle with guys like Myles Murphy (their version of him) and Gray at MLB than on the edges. Their safeties and corners are not particularly great helping in the run game as tacklers or with the angles they take to the ball. I expect Riley to attack the edges a good bit with runs and screens to get that defense moving side to side. As long as Clemson can protect the football, there are things to be had on this UNC defense for sure. UNC is best built to rush the passer on long yardage situations so staying on schedule with first and second down will be really important.
Clemson defense vs. UNC offense: This is the clash of the titans, so to speak, for this game. UNC has one of the best offenses in the nation with one of the best QB’s in the nation. Tez Walker’s addition has given them an alpha outside WR in the mold of Keon Coleman from Florida State. They also have Omarion Hampton as a top shelf running back. Meanwhile, Clemson’s defense has been outstanding for two straight weeks with taking care of the run, blanketing opposing WRs, and taking the ball away and scoring to boot.
This game will be all about stopping the run for both teams. The team that forces the other to have to win throwing will be best positioned to win. UNC is better equipped to do that, but Clemson’s rapidly expanding depth in the back seven is like nothing the Heels have seen this season. Clemson has been able to get away with a lot of man coverage on the outside the last two games. GT came close to burning Nate Wiggins early last week a couple of times but couldn’t do it. Wiggins may have underestimated Eric Singleton but it would be foolish to do so against Tez Walker who has made some huge plays down the field since being able to join UNC four games into the season. We will see how Sheridan Jones and Jeadyn Lukus are doing, but the freshmen combination of Avieon Terrell and Shelton Lewis were lights out last week. Tyler Venables is set to join the safety group that already has had freshmen step up beginning with Khalil Barnes and now Kylon Griffin. Clemson will need a great effort out of all of those guys to keep UNC from popping some explosive plays while the front looks to shut down the running game.
Speaking of the front, I’m past due to give props to Demonte Capehart whose light has evidently come all the way on the last couple of weeks. I paid particular attention to him last week and it wasn’t hard to miss his putting GT OL on skates and just throwing guys around like rag dolls at the point of attack. He’s playing some full grown man football now in the mold of a Dexter Lawrence and it is a beautiful sight. One interception was directly caused by Capehart just destroying an OL and getting in King’s face as he tried to throw. Some might have felt the former five star from Hartsville was a bust but he’s really learned how to use his hands and convert his impressive power to wreak some havoc. Props to him and to Nick Eason’s work with him. The front can really turn the tide in this game and offset much of what Drake Maye and his strong array of weapons can do. Maye can make some ridiculous plays off schedule, but as long as Clemson makes that be the way he has to make plays it shouldn’t be enough to carry the Tar Heels to victory.
Special Teams: I wasn’t going to think the ND game was suddenly going to be the norm in this phase. It wasn’t terrible, but there was yet another missed FG (second time Weitz has missed after a timeout to “ice” him). There was that fake punt which was a serious head scratcher considering the down, distance, and field position. I will say I do get Dabo essentially sending a signal to the team that he is going to be aggressive and throw a little caution to the wind. It didn’t work out and GT was able to take the lead, but the team really responded from that point on and dominated until garbage time. However, I’m fine with not giving the UNC offense that type of field position this week. I have to say while Hamp Greene isn’t going to be confused with Jacoby Ford anytime soon, he’s been solid catching the ball and getting a little yardage at times. We haven’t seen as many punts being allowed to hit and roll as earlier in the season and that is a plus. I just hope this game doesn’t come down to a field goal by Clemson.
Overall: I was beginning to question myself when I thought about how I said this team was going to be really good by the end of the year when the team stumbled and bumbled to a 2-4 record. My belief was built on this freshman class, and I figured when they got really adjusted to this level that their impressive talents would be a serious shot in the arm to the team. Last week it seemed like my faith was being totally vindicated as freshman after freshman made huge plays on both sides of the ball. There is a difference in thinking you are good vs. knowing you a good and we may very well have seen that transition the last two weeks for this Clemson football team. While I don’t think Clemson will run away from UNC the way they did in Charlotte last year, I like Clemson’s emergent depth to be the difference in this game. I’d rather have a team weakness on offense than defense when it is all said and done.
Clemson 38-UNC 24