Writing history with each step, Clemson virtually secured an invitation to the College Football Playoff by beating North Carolina 45-37 for the Atlantic Coast Conference championship Saturday at Bank of America Stadium.
The polls’ consensus No. 1 for four weeks, Clemson earned an opportunity for the program’s second national championship with its 13th win. Clemson won the 1981 national title with a 12-0 record when Dabo Swinney was 11-years old.
Swinney, a player on a national championship team at Alabama 11 years later, won his second ACC title in his seventh full season as head coach.
The CFP pairings are scheduled to be announced at noon Sunday on ESPN. Last week, Swinney invited fans to a “poll party” at Death Valley, and the Clemson athletics staff ordered pizza for up to 20,000.
In extending the nation’s longest winning streak to 16 games, Clemson won its seventh this season over teams with a winning record. North Carolina, which awaits a bowl invitation, had won 11 straight after losing its opening game this season to South Carolina in this stadium.
Sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson, the conference player of the year and a candidate for several national honors, was all that and more, passing for three touchdowns and rushing for a pair. Watson completed 26 of 42 passes for 289 yards and rushed for a career-high 132 yards on 23 carries.
Clemson totaled 605 yards, second to the 623 it had at N.C. State this season. More than half the total was in rushing, with both Watson and running back Wayne Gallman topping 100 yards. Gallman’s 187 yards was a season high. The third-year sophomore rushed for a touchdown and caught a pass for a score for the first time this season.
The game got away from North Carolina in the third quarter after the Tar Heels received the kickoff. Clemson scored on three straight possessions. Quarterback Marquise Williams completed 11 of 33 passes for 224 yards and three touchdowns, but ran for his life much of the game. Clemson’s defense intercepted him once and sack him twice.
Tar Heels running back Elijah Hood, the ACC’s No. 2 rusher entering the game, was limited to 65 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries.
In its 12 previous games this season, Clemson trailed for a total 47 minutes and 44 seconds including 34:14 against Florida State. For only the second time this season Clemson trailed at the end of the first quarter, but the Tigers rallied for a touchdown with two seconds left in the half to take a 21-16 lead.
Plagued by poor field position most of the half, Clemson ran 57 plays from scrimmage for 309 yards. The Tigers’ scoring drives were for 75, 96 and 68 yards. Conversely, North Carolina was limited to 103 yards on 28 plays and trailed at halftime for only the second time this season.
UNC twice led in the first quarter, taking the initial lead 3-0 on a 30-yard field goal by Nick Weiler with 8:45 to play after Greg Huegel’s 47-yard field goal attempt was short. It was Huegel’s first miss in 18 tries against ACC opponents.
Watson and Gallman teamed on a 16-yard touchdown for a 7-3 l3 lead with 5:14 to play. It was Gallman’s first receiving touchdown of the season, the second of his career. During the drive, Watson hit Artavis Scott for 42 yards to the UNC 11.
UNC rallied when Williams spotted tailback T.J. Logan lingering near the Tar Heel bench. Logan darted for a 46-yard touchdown, but a pass for the two-point conversion failed and UNC led 9-7 with 1:44 to play in the quarter.
Watson guided a 12-play, 96-yard drive for a 14-9 lead with 10:35 to play in the half. The drive was the Tigers second longest of the season, two yards short of the 98-yarder against Boston College. Watson scored on a 9-yard run.
Two chances to expand the lead were frittered with the second giving UNC an opportunity to reclaim the lead.
Beginning at the 35, its best starting position of the half, Clemson managed to be flagged three times for false starts. Watson fell on a premature snap and Clemson faced fourth down. Punter Andy Teasdall took the snap and ran to his left apparently for a rugby-style kick. When the Tar Heels defense blocked his lane, Teasdall tried to run but was smothered at the Clemson 31.
Aided by a roughing the passer foul on Shaq Lawson, UNC needed four plays to score with Williams hitting Ryan Switzer on a three-yard touchdown for a 16-14 advantage with 3:52 to play.
Watson and tight end Jordan Leggett team on a one-yard touchdown with two seconds to play capping a 10-play 68-yard drive. In the drive Watson completed passes to Leggett, Ray Ray McCloud, Hunter Renfrow and Gallman.
Though Clemson did not commit a turnover in the half, the Tigers were penalized seven times for 58 yards and lost safety T.J. Green to a targeting call. Their only turnover was a tipped pass that UNC intercepted in the third quarter.
Clemson twice led by as many as 19, but the Tar Heels were relentless, cutting the score to 42-30 with 9:50 to play and driving with under seven minutes to play. Shaq Lawson sacked Marquise Williams and forced a fumble that Austin Bryant recovered at the Clemson 47 with 6:38 to play.
After Huegel’s 27-yard field goal with 2:19 to play, Williams hit Switzer for a 17-yard touchdown 1:03 later.
The ending was not without drama.
The Tar Heels recovered the ensuing onside attempt, but were flagged for being offsides. On the second attempt, Clemson recovered the ball at the UNC 30 and ran out the clock.
Gallman shredded the UNC defense in the second half, rushing for 160 in the second half as Clemson tried to compress the game.
Clemson’s 8-0 conference record during the regular season was a first in the bigger ACC. Previous Clemson teams were undefeated in 1967, 1978, 1981, 1982 and 1983.
Coincidental to beating UNC, the Tigers knocked off a coach with a link to the Clemson program. Larry Fedora began his college coaching career as an offensive assistant at Baylor under Chuck Reedy, a member of the Clemson staff through 1978-1989. UNC announced before the game that Fedora’s contract was extended seven years.
A 10-play, 68-yard scoring drive in the final two minutes of the second quarter gave Clemson a 21-16 lead, and the Tigers didn’t look back scoring on its first two possessions of the second half.
Star of the game: Watson passed for three touchdowns and ran for two more. He set ACC Championship game records for total offense (with 5:00 to play in the third quarter) and rushing by a quarterback.
Stat of the game: Averaging nearly 500 yards a game this season, North Carolina was held to 103 in the first half and 227 after three quarters. Clemson is 51-2 the last five years when accumulating more offense than its opponent.
Play of the game: Scott and Gallman teamed on a hook and ladder in the third quarter to set up Clemson’s fourth touchdown. Deshaun Watson hit Scott for four yards to the UNC 41. Scott flipped the ball to Gallman who raced 26 yards to the UNC 15.
Watson for Heisman: Watson certainly secured an invitation to Heisman Trophy ceremonies next week with a record-setting performance. In addition to surpassing 100 rushing yards for the fourth time in five games, he completed 12 straight passes in one stretch.
Under siege: UNC quarterback Williams rarely passed without a Clemson hand in his face or arms around his waist.
Depth at safety huge: Despite losing T.J. Green in the second quarter on a targeting call, Clemson continued to turn up the heat. It could become a problem for the first half of the playoffs. Green was third in total tackles and had five before he was disqualified.