North Carolina football: 3 reasons the Tar Heels could knock off Clemson in the ACC championship
For the 1st time since 2019, No. 24 North Carolina and No. 10 Clemson will square off. But this time, the ACC title will be on the line.
History suggests the Tigers will come away with a win Saturday at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. North Carolina’s last win in the series came during 2010, when former coach Butch Davis led the Tar Heels and Dabo Swinney was in just his 2nd full year as the Tigers leader. Since then, Clemson has won 4 straight meetings, as well as 7 ACC championships.
The Tigers currently are 7.5-point favorites, and the Tar Heels have never won the ACC title game in its 17-year history.
But despite the history and the odds, North Carolina has a path to victory Saturday. Here are 3 keys to a Tar Heels conquest.
1. Clemson’s offense is turnover-prone
Clemson dropped 2 of its final 4 regular-season contests — a blowout road loss to Notre Dame and a gut-wrenching 1-point home loss Saturday to South Carolina. One reason why? Turnovers.
In South Bend, Ind., Clemson turned it over twice, with both serving as backbreaking giveaways. The 1st came late in the 3rd quarter as Clemson, trailing 14-0 and deep in its own territory, looked to freshman backup Cade Klubnik for a spark.
Klubnick did what freshman quarterbacks are prone to do, throwing across his body over the middle. Notre Dame cornerback Benjamin Morrison, who snagged 5 interceptions during the regular season, picked off the ill-advised throw and set up an Audric Estime rushing score. That made it 21-0.
The 2nd pick came just a few minutes later, with the Tigers in the red zone and trying to scratch and claw their way back into the contest. But starting quarterback DJ Uiagalelei, re-inserted into the lineup after Klubnik threw his interception, was not on the same page with senior receiver Joseph Ngata, who was running a route to the end zone.
Morrison was happy to take advantage of the miscommunication, picking off his 2nd ball of the night and taking it 96 yards for a 28-0 Fighting Irish lead.
Against South Carolina, 3 more turnovers sank the Tigers. 2 came on special teams, as a trick play gone wrong and a botched punt return resulted in fumbles by Phil Mafah and Antonio Williams, respectively. The latter came with Clemson trailing 31-30, and just over 2 minutes left on the clock.
Uiagalalei also threw a pick with just less than 7 minutes remaining, on a deep shot to tight end Davis Allen. In short, multiple parties are to blame for the 5 turnovers that defined Clemson’s 2 losses.
Even during home wins against Louisville and Miami this month, the Tigers coughed the ball up 3 times each (1 pick by Uiagalelei and 5 lost fumbles). The Clemson offense has been extremely generous during recent weeks, which could spell doom Saturday. Giving North Carolina quarterback Drake Maye extra possessions is never a positive.
2. The North Carolina defense is capable of getting key stops
Overall, the numbers for this unit have not been pretty. The Tar Heels defense is tied for 103rd in scoring defense and is 117th in total defense, and the team hasn’t allowed less than 21 points since early October.
The eye test might be even worse, as massive holes up front and corners on an island have given offenses a multitude of ways to attack defensive coordinator Gene Chizik’s group.
However, against Miami, Duke and Wake Forest, the Tar Heels came up clutch at the exact right time, as DeAndre Boykins, Will Hardy and Cam’Ron Kelly, respectively, collected massive late interceptions to help give North Carolina victories.
And despite Friday’s devastating home loss to NC State, the Tar Heels defense stopped the Wolfpack twice in overtime, forcing field goals on both occasions. Maye and the offense could not get the job done, and Noah Burnette yanked his kick to potentially tie in double overtime, but all in all, the defense did its job.
That is at least slightly encouraging heading into Saturday, particularly against a Clemson offense with a penchant for turning the ball over.
3. North Carolina has more experience in close games than Clemson
Clemson is a roughly touchdown favorite, but make no mistake, this should come down the final couple of possessions. If experience breeds improvement, which I think we can all agree is the case, then the Tar Heels have a leg up in a tight contest.
Dating to the start of the season, North Carolina has been in 8 games decided by no more than 1 score, winning 6. Clemson, on the other hand, has been in 4 such contests, winning 3. One of those 4 came on the road against Florida State, a game Clemson led 34-14 nearly midway through the final quarter.
With the exception of a 31-28 road win against Virginia, each of North Carolina’s 6 close wins featured a 4th-quarter drive (in some cases, drives) when, if the opposition scored, it would either take the lead or pull even. Against Duke and Wake Forest, North Carolina actually gave up the lead during the 4th quarter before snatching it back and sealing the win both times.
Experience in tight contests carries over, and North Carolina carries a definitive edge in that department.