Saturday Road's Ultimate ACC Championship Preview: Has UNC's time finally arrived?
Everything you need to know about this weekend’s showdown between Clemson and North Carolina in the ACC Championship Game.
That’s how long it has been since North Carolina has raised an ACC football championship banner.
To put that into perspective, Jimmy Carter still was in the White House the last time it happened in 1980. Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor was a member of the Tar Heels. And Mack Brown had yet to arrive in Chapel Hill.
The 1st time.
It’s a drought that can end Saturday when Coastal Division champion UNC will take on Atlantic Division winner Clemson in the ACC Championship Game at Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium.
By contrast to the title-starved Tar Heels, winning ACC titles has become almost a birthright for the Tigers. Dabo Swinney’s team had brought home 6 straight championships before last year’s “down” 10-3 season. Now they’re back to reclaim what they believe is rightfully theirs.
This time, though, the ACC crown would only be a consolation prize.
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— ACC Football (@ACCFootball) November 30, 2022
The Tigers’ hopes of returning to the College Football Playoff and contending for their 3rd national championship since 2016 were dashed by last week’s loss to rival South Carolina. It’s a disappointment Swinney insists they’ve already put in their rear-view mirror.
“We’ll move on like we’ve always done,” he said. “The last time we lost (at Notre Dame), we went back to work. This is what you do. You keep good perspective.”
If Clemson (10-2) is in need of perspective, UNC could use a double dose.
Brown’s team appeared to be on its way to a special season by winning 9 of 10 games with quarterback Drake Maye emerging as a Heisman Trophy candidate. But the momentum stopped shortly after clinching its 2nd Coastal title.
The Tar Heels (9-3) head to Charlotte on the heels of a 2-game losing streak.
With no regrets.
“I’m not going to sit around and feel bad,” said Brown, who came out of retirement during 2019 to lead UNC back to national relevance, the way he did before leaving for Texas in 1997. “I’m not going to feel embarrassed for 9 wins.
“If you’d asked a North Carolina fan, or me, in August: Would you take 9 wins and a chance to play Clemson for the conference championship? We’d be so excited.”
Here’s their chance.
When Clemson has the ball
1. How long a leash will DJU be on?
After getting off to a promising start, DJ Uiagalelei has reverted back to last year’s inconsistent, mistake-prone form. He has been intercepted 5 times during his past 5 games and is coming off a performance in which he completed only 8 of 29 passes for 99 yards in a loss to rival South Carolina.
In spite of those struggles, Swinney and offensive coordinator Brandon Streeter remain staunchly loyal to their struggling quarterback. They’ve both given DJU their votes of confidence, at least when it comes to his starting position. They’re not as definitive as to how long they plan on sticking with him.
From the sound of things, they’re prepared to make a change if things don’t go well early. Backup Cade Klubnik is being prepared to play, just in case.
“We’re still in discussion about that and how we can utilize Cade,” Streeter said. “But like I said, right now DJ’s no doubt the starter.”
Klubnik came to Clemson as the top-rated quarterback in this year’s freshman class. But he has seen limited action behind Uiagalelei. He did, however, come on during the 2nd half to lead a comeback victory against Syracuse on Oct. 22. He has thrown only 3 passes since then and did not see action against South Carolina.
Key matchup: WR Antonio Williams vs. UNC CB Storm Duck
Uiagalelei’s struggles aren’t the only thing that have been off in Clemson’s passing game. As Swinney pointed out in the aftermath of the South Carolina game, his quarterback hasn’t gotten a lot of help from a receiving corps that has performed far below the standard set by the likes of high-round NFL draft picks DeAndre Hopkins, Mike Williams, Sammy Watkins and Tee Higgins.
The best of the bunch has been Antonio Williams. The 5-foot-11, 190-pound freshman became Uiagalelei’s go-to target after Beaux Collins separated a shoulder Nov. 5 against Notre Dame. He has 21 of his team-leading 50 catches during the past 4 games, including 10 for 83 yards and a touchdown in a win against Louisville.
Williams will find himself matched up often with Storm Duck, who is more than just a colorful name. Duck is the Tar Heels’ best cover corner and team-leader with 3 interceptions and 9 pass breakups. But while he has the straight-line quickness to stay with his man stride-for-stride downfield, he sometimes has trouble changing directions and can be outmuscled by more physical receivers.
Duck also is 1 of 3 key UNC defensive backs nursing injuries. Cam’Ron Kelly and Tony Grimes also are “being monitored” leading up to Saturday’s game. If Williams can exploit that and win his 1-on-1 battles in the secondary, it will greatly enhance his quarterback’s ability to build confidence and exploit the ACC’s worst pass defense.
2. Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers
The Tigers have been their own worst enemy over the 2nd half of the season. They’ve averaged almost 3 turnovers per game since coming from behind to beat Syracuse on Oct. 22. While Uiagalelei has taken the bulk of the blame for the problem because of his 5 interceptions and 3 lost fumbles over that 5-game stretch, he’s not the only culprit. Two of Clemson’s 3 turnovers against South Carolina were on kick returns, by Phil Mafah on an ill-advised trick play and the other by Antonio Williams.
Worse than the turnovers themselves is the fact that opposing teams have been making the Tigers pay for them. In those 5 games, Syracuse, Notre Dame, Louisville, Miami and South Carolina have combined to parlay those 15 takeaways into 35 points. That compares to just 3 points allowed off giveaways over the first 7 games.
The good news for Clemson is UNC’s defense isn’t the type that forces a lot of turnovers. The Tar Heels are tied for 105th nationally with only 13 this season (8 interceptions and 5 fumble recoveries). The bad news is those takeaways often have come late in games when the Tar Heels have needed them most. Their 1-possession victories against Duke (Will Hardy), Miami (DeAndre Boykins) and Wake Forest (Kelly) were all preserved by interceptions within the final 4 minutes.
Key matchup: OT Jordan McFadden vs. UNC DE Kaimon Rucker
The best way for the Tigers to address their turnover problem, especially when it comes to interceptions, is giving Uiagalelei (or Klubnik) enough time to find open receivers downfield and make the throws. They’ll be aided in that pursuit by the fact that UNC hasn’t been good at rushing the passer. Their 16 sacks are 7 fewer than anyone else in the ACC.
Some of those problems stem from season-ending injuries to starting defensive linemen Noah Taylor, whose 3.5 sacks in 8 games still lead the team, and Ray Vohasek. In their absence, Kaimon Rucker has emerged as the Tar Heels’ chief disruptor up front with 2.5 sacks, 6 tackles for loss, 8 quarterback hurries and 2 forced fumbles.
He’ll spend most of the day lined up against offensive tackle Jordan McFadden. The 6-3, 305-pound junior is the Jacobs Blocking Trophy winner as the ACC’s best offensive lineman in a vote of the league’s head coaches and defensive coordinators.
— ACC Digital Network (@theACCDN) August 13, 2021
3. Will Shipley run?
With 1,092 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground, Will Shipley has been Clemson’s best, most consistent offensive threat this season. He ranks 2nd only to Pittsburgh’s Israel Abanikanda in the ACC in rushing. But for some reason, he was missing in action during the 2nd half against South Carolina.
“(I) definitely wish we would’ve gotten it to him a little bit more,” Swinney said afterward. That’s as much of an understatement as saying there was a lot of orange in the stands at Death Valley last Saturday.
While Shipley carried the ball 15 times for 132 yards and a touchdown against the Gamecocks, averaging 8.8 yards per attempt, 99 of those yards came before halftime. During the 4th quarter, with his team fighting to rally from a 1-point deficit, he was given the ball only twice, for 3 yards.
Shipley, along with fellow running back Phil Mafah, should have plenty of opportunities to do damage against a UNC defense that ranks next-to-last in the ACC against the run, allowing an average of 169 yards on the ground per game. That is, if the Tigers remember to give him the ball.
Key matchup: RB Will Shipley vs. UNC LB Cedric Gray
Cedric Gray has been among the few bright spots on a UNC defense that has been the Tar Heels’ weak link all season. The junior linebacker earned 1st-team All-ACC honors by leading the conference with 130 tackles and an average of 10.8 per game. He also has compiled 9 TFLs, 5 PBUs, 2 interceptions, 3 forced fumbles and 2 fumble recoveries.
Those final 2 stats could be the most important heading into Saturday’s championship matchup. Shipley has put the ball on the ground 4 times this season, losing it twice. That’s something to watch, given the Tigers’ recent turnover woes. Beyond his ball-hawking skills, Gray will headline the effort to contain Shipley and a Clemson ground game that has churned out 188 yards per game and ranks 3rd in the ACC.
When UNC has the ball
1. Can Drake Maye get his mojo back?
Drake Maye is the ACC’s Rookie and Player of the Year with a school-record 3,847 passing yards. He also leads the Tar Heels in rushing with 629 yards and is responsible for 41 touchdowns (35 passing, 6 rushing). His combined yardage of 4,476 represents 76% of his team’s total output for the season.
He is by far the most prolific passer Clemson has seen this season. But he’s also in the midst of a 2-game slump that has severely diminished his once-glimmering Heisman Trophy hopes. He was held without a touchdown pass for the 1st time while throwing for a season-low 202 yards during a 21-17 loss to Georgia Tech. He was only slightly better last week during a double-overtime loss to NC State, going 29-of-49 for 233 yards, a touchdown and an interception.
Maye did show a flash of his usual self during the final 4 minutes of regulation against the Wolfpack. He drove the Tar Heels 75 yards on 15 plays before hitting Antoine Green for the tying touchdown as time expired.
Some of Maye’s recent problems can be attributed to his inexperience in recognizing defensive adjustments. He’ll have to do a better job of taking what the defense gives him Saturday. But if the Tigers decide to play UNC straight up rather than dropping 8 into coverage as the Wolfpack did, Maye could have a field day against a secondary that was torched for 360 yards by South Carolina’s Spencer Rattler last week.
Key matchup: QB Drake Maye vs. himself
Maye made it look easy during the 1st 10 weeks of his redshirt freshman season, filling up the stats sheet with gaudy numbers in both the passing and rushing columns while leading his team to a 9-1 record overall and 6-0 in games decided by a touchdown or less.
Then came Georgia Tech. Then NC State. And just like that, it hasn’t been as easy for Maye anymore.
Did the young quarterback get swept up by his success and the Heisman hype that grew to a fever pitch before being doused with an ice cold bucket of reality? Maybe a little. More reasonably, his struggles over the past 2 games have been the result or adjustments by opposing defensive coordinators.
That was particularly true against the Wolfpack, which alternated pressure with dropping 8 men into coverage to limit Maye’s ability to throw the deep ball. And it worked. Instead of concentrating on shorter, underneath throws by “being patient and taking the less-exciting, less-exotic aspect of the play” – as offensive coordinator Phil Longo put it – Maye continued trying to force things over the top. It wasn’t until the final desperation drive of regulation, which yielded the tying touchdown as time expired, that he finally began to adjust.
Football is a game of constant adjustments. And the opposition clearly has made theirs on Maye. Now it’s up to the UNC star to counter those adjustments by making a few of his own.
Drake Maye, this year’s ACC Player of the Year 🏆
— Carolina Football (@UNCFootball) November 30, 2022
2. Can UNC protect Maye?
No quarterback, even one as talented as Maye, can be successful when he spends as much time on his back or running for his life as he does looking downfield for his receivers.
Keeping their star’s jersey clean has been a problem for the Tar Heels this season. He has been sacked 34 times, including 6 during the Nov. 19 loss to Georgia Tech. Although NC State got him to the ground twice last Saturday, its 11 pressures were the most UNC has allowed.
As high as those sack numbers might be, they could be significantly worse if not for Maye’s ability to feel pressure and escape it. Several of his touchdowns have come on passes in which he bought time by scrambling out of the pocket or improvised runs.
“He’s very savvy in the pocket and he’ll step up or slide out,” Swinney said. “He’s a very creative player and a very confident player, just very poised. You’ve got to try to keep him in the pocket the best you can. He’ll find a lane on you in a heartbeat and make you pay.”
Protecting Maye and giving him ample time to throw will be even more of a priority against an aggressive Clemson pass rush that comes into the championship game ranking 4th in the ACC with 35 sacks.
Key Matchup: OTs Asim Richards/Spencer Rolland vs. Clemson DEs Myles Murphy/KJ Henry
UNC’s offensive line has had difficulties with pass protection all season. It will be especially tested Saturday against a Clemson defensive front that is still among the best in college football despite a season-ending injury to end Xavier Thomas and a series of on- and off-the-field issues involving star tackle Bryan Bresee. Tackles Asim Richards and Spencer Rolland will draw the toughest assignments, trying to keep the Tigers’ edge rushing bookends Myles Murphy and KJ Henry out of their backfield.
Richards, at 6-4 and 315 pounds, is a 3rd-year starter who handles the left side. Right tackle Rolland is a 6-6, 310-pound graduate transfer from Harvard who earned All-Ivy League recognition last season.
Murphy, a 6-5, 275-pound junior projected 1st-round NFL draft pick, has done the most damage statistically with 6.5 sacks and 11 TFLs. But bookend edge rusher Henry has been just as hard to handle. The 6-4, 255-pound senior leads Clemson with 22 quarterback pressures to go along with his 3.5 sacks and 9 TFLs.
They’re not the only Tigers defenders who will garner attention from Richards, Rolland, center Corey Gainer and guards Ed Montilus and William Barnes. Defensive tackle Tyler Davis has been just as effective in terrorizing opposing passers by amassing 15 pressures to go along with his 4 sacks.
3 Can the Tar Heels extend and finish drives?
UNC’s success in close games this season has been a product of its ability to get as much out of its offensive possessions as possible. It has accomplished that by being among the most efficient teams in the ACC on both 3rd- and 4th-down conversions, and by putting up points when they get into the red zone.
The Tar Heels rank 3rd in the league behind only Florida State and Clemson on 3rd down by converting 79 of their 170 chances (46.5%). That number becomes even more impressive when you factor in their success on 4th down. Few teams in the country have gone for it more. Brown has kept his offense on the field on 4th down 30 times this season and it has been successful 21 times for an amazing percentage of .700.
UNC has been just as good in the red zone. It has scored on 50 of 61 trips, with 41 touchdowns and 9 field goals. But those figures are deceiving. The Tar Heels’ magic on both 3rd down and in scoring position has faded over the past 2 games. They converted only 4-of-14 3rd-down chances against Georgia Tech and 5-of-20 against NC State while failing to get points on 5 of 13 red-zone trips. They’ve scored only 6 touchdowns on their past 32 drives dating to a win at Wake Forest on Oct. 12.
Key matchup: WRs Josh Downs/Antoine Green vs. Clemson secondary
Clemson corners Sheridan Jones and Nate Wiggins, along with free safety Jalyn Phillips, spent a lot of time seeing the backs of a lot of South Carolina jerseys last week. Rattler hit his receivers for 6 plays of longer than 20 yards in the upset of the Tigers, including a 72-yard touchdown strike to Antwane Wells Jr. Wake Forest’s stable of talented receivers did even more damage back on Sept. 24. They accounted for 337 yards and 6 touchdowns while putting up 45 points in Clemson’s double-overtime win.
The Tar Heels duo of Josh Downs and Antoine Green is every bit as good, if not better than the receivers on either of those other teams.
Downs, a 1st-team All-ACC selection, is a slot man with the speed and vision to turn short passes across the middle into huge gains. He leads the team with 83 catches and 11 touchdowns, and he is 71 yards away from his 2nd straight 1,000-yard season despite missing 2 games with injuries.
Green is Maye’s big-play deep threat who not only can beat his man down the field, but also outjump him on contested balls. He’s averaging 19.6 yards on his 38 catches and has 7 touchdowns despite missing 4 games because of injury.
Look for Maye to go to them early and often, especially when matched up against Andrew Mukaba. The backup strong safety struggled last week. He will be forced into action again Saturday with top defensive back RJ Mickens serving a targeting suspension during the 1st half.
Special teams haven’t been very special for either team recently.
The Tar Heels saw their chances at victory against rival NC State last week sail wide right when kicker Noah Burnette missed a 35-yard field-goal attempt during the 2nd overtime. He also missed a 27-yard try earlier in the game. Burnette is 12-of-16 on 3-pointers this season. Oddly enough, all but 1 of his misses have been from 39 yards or less. He is 4-of-4 this season from 40 to 49 yards.
Clemson’s B.T. Potter has been much more reliable. He’s 17-of-20 with a long of 52 yards and has yet to miss from inside 40.
The Tigers’ special teams issues come in other areas.
Their inability to field punts cost them precious field position against South Carolina last week. Not only did they spend most of the 2nd half pinned deep in their own territory, but when forced to punt themselves, they gave the Gamecocks short fields with which to work. Things didn’t go well even when they fielded the ball. Two of their 3 turnovers came on fumbles by return men.
fresh paint job 🏆 pic.twitter.com/W8hYrljgw3
— ACC Football (@ACCFootball) December 2, 2022
The Tigers had better success against the 5 opponents that appeared on both teams’ schedules.
Clemson beat Georgia Tech 41-10 in Atlanta on Labor Day weekend and NC State 30-20 at home on Oct. 1. The Tar Heels lost to both at home, 20-17 to the Yellow Jackets and 30-27 in double overtime to the Wolfpack in the final 2 weeks of the regular season.
They both won road games at Wake Forest and Miami, and lost by double-figures to Notre Dame. UNC fell behind early and stayed within striking distance in Chapel Hill, but never seriously threatened in a 45-32 setback that saw Maye throw 5 touchdown passes. Clemson fell 35-14 in South Bend in a game the Irish dominated from start-to-finish.
Clemson is a 7.5-point favorite with an over/under set at 63.5. Neither of which is a surprise.
The Tigers have been here before and have played the tougher schedule. The Tar Heels are making only their 2nd championship-game appearance and 1st since 2015. And when UNC’s offense is on its game, you can expect the scoreboard to light up brighter than the Vegas strip. Especially the way its defense gives up points.
But there are several variables that make picking this matchup a tricky proposition.
On 1 side of the ball, there’s the Tar Heels’ recent offensive slump while on the other is Clemson’s penchant for turning the ball over. And while the game will be played at a true neutral site, the venue could work in UNC’s favor. The Tar Heels are 6-0 away from Kenan Stadium this season and only 3-3 at home.
Then there’s the history between these teams.
UNC recovered this onside kick. ACC officials called it offsides. Clemson wins. ACC secures spot in playoff. Fishy. pic.twitter.com/lUkxWvNm9h
— Casey Jones (@CaseyJ_WOODTV) December 6, 2015
Although Clemson leads the all-time series 38-19-1 and has won 4 straight dating to 2010, the 2 most recent meetings have come down to the final minute. The Tigers came from behind to win 21-20 in Chapel Hill in 2019 when Brown chose to go for 2 and the win rather than kicking the extra point for overtime with just over a minute remaining.
UNC also scored late in its 2015 ACC Championship Game showdown against the Tigers. And Again, it came up short – this time after a controversial offside call that nullified a recovered onside kick and deprived the Tar Heels of an opportunity to tie the score.
Saturday’s game promises to be just as close. But this time, the script will flip.
UNC 37, Clemson 35