CLEMSON, SC – North Carolina’s slim hopes for getting back to the ACC Championship Game ended just after kickoff when Louisville finished off Miami to earn its trip to Charlotte in 2 weeks.

The Tar Heels’ chances of beating Clemson at Death Valley ended not long afterward.

UNC had an opportunity to dig the Tigers into a deep early hole. But it failed to take advantage by fumbling the ball away twice inside the 5-yard line. Instead of being ahead by multiple scores, Mack Brown’s team left the door open for the Tigers to come roaring through.

And they did.

Phil Mafah, Will Shipley and quarterback Cade Klubnik all scored rushing touchdowns and Clemson’s defense clamped down on Drake Maye and his usually explosive offense on the way to a 31-20 victory.
Here are 3 takeaways from the rematch of last year’s conference championship matchup.

Tigers in Ship shape

Will Shipley got off to a strong start this season by rushing for 114 yards in Clemson’s season-opening loss at Duke. It was the start of what figured to be another standout season for the All-ACC running back. But it was the last time Shipley reached the 100-yard mark in a game.

Until Saturday.

In what might be his final home game at Death Valley, Shipley returned to form by rushing for 126 yards and a touchdown. Although the Charlotte native is a junior athletically, he’s on schedule to graduate after 3 years and has hinted that he might play elsewhere in 2024.

His effort was part of a strong ground attack in which the Tigers rolled up 248 yards as a team, with Mafah adding 84 yards and Klubnik 44. The big rushing numbers were anything but a surprise against a UNC defense that has given up an average of 251 rushing yards in its last 3 games against FBS opponents.

Good when it counts

While Clemson’s defense kept Maye under control, holding him to 209 yards and 1 touchdown with an interception while sacking him 4 times, it had its hand full with running back Omarion Hampton. The ACC’s leading rusher picked up 178 yards on the ground, including a 55-yard touchdown run.

But when the Tigers needed to be good – especially on 3rd and 4th down – they were.

UNC converted its 1st 4th down attempt when Maye hit Tez Walker for a 43-yard gain. But it was tough sledding from that point on. The Tar Heels were only able to convert 4 of 14 3rd downs and were stopped 3 times on 5 subsequent 4th down conversions.

The biggest of those stops came early in the 3rd quarter when Maye was sacked by Khalil Barnes on a 4th-and-2 play from the Clemson 44. After the turnover on downs, the Tigers drove 56 yards on 7 plays for a touchdown that increased their lead to 21-7 and gave them separation for the 1st time.

What goes around, comes around

Clemson has had trouble with turnovers all season, including at least 3 lost fumbles inside the opponent’s 10-yard line that have cost it points.

And at least in 1 instance at Miami, a game.

Saturday, however, it was the other team that couldn’t hold onto the ball in sight of the end zone. Two fumbles by Hampton cost UNC touchdowns in the 1st quarter alone. The 1st, recovered by the Tigers, came 2 plays after Maye completed a 33-yard pass to JJ Jones on a 4th-and-6 play from near midfield. The 2nd, which went through the end zone for a touchback, came when Hampton was stripped from behind at the end of what would have been an electric 64-yard run.

The fumbles were out of character for Hampton, who had gone 206 carries coming into the game this season without putting the ball on the ground. Not to be outdone, the Tigers returned the favor just before halftime when Will Shipley gave the ball back to the Tar Heels by coughing it up at the UNC 6.