After further review: Five reasons why UNC almost beat No. 1 Clemson

North Carolina was a two-point conversion away from potentially knocking off No. 1 Clemson at home and taking the college football world by storm last Saturday.

But Clemson’s defense stopped that attempt with less than two minutes left to play, and came out on top, 21-20.

Coming into Saturday’s game, the Tar Heels (2-3, 1-1 ACC) were 27.5-point underdogs. Clemson (5-0, 3-0) had won the past 14 games by 14 points or more. To have a chance to win against Clemson, UNC had to do a lot right and limit their own mistakes.

For the most part, the Tar Heels did just that, and it should serve as a blueprint for the rest of the season as they try to contend for an ACC Coastal Division title and head to Georgia Tech (1-3, 0-1) on Saturday.

Here were five things UNC did well against Clemson:

1. Third downs were manageable

The Tar Heels gained positive yards on early downs against Clemson. So when they did get in third-down situations, those plays were a lot more manageable than in previous games.

UNC averaged 6.4 yards on first down plays.

Of UNC’s 17 third-down attempts, six were third-and-short (1-4 yards), and five were third and long (9+ yards). The third and shorts helped the Tar Heels score and take the lead early in the game.

On its first possession, UNC converted a third-and-short into a first down to the Clemson 40-yard line.

That allowed UNC to take a shot down field to sophomore wide receiver Dyami Brown on a play-action, stop-and-go route.

Brown got Clemson cornerback A.J. Terrell to bite on the fake, and UNC freshman quarterback Sam Howell found him wide open for the touchdown. The score gave UNC an early 7-0 lead.

The Tar Heels used to the same exact play to score a first-quarter touchdown against Miami on Sept. 7.

2. Made Clemson play from behind

Because UNC scored the first touchdown, it put pressure on Clemson to have an answer.

Clemson tied the game 7-7 in the second quarter, but the Tar Heels took the lead back shortly after UNC linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel forced Clemson running back Travis Etienne to fumble.

The Tigers again had to make the comeback, which they did, and the game was tied 14-14 at halftime, and did not take their first lead until 9:54 left in the game.

The Tigers were in unfamiliar territory for most of this game. They had trailed for three minutes and 26 seconds in the first four games combined. Against the Tar Heels, they trailed for 22 minutes and 54 seconds, all in the first half.

The Tar Heels knew they couldn’t get in a hole and try to stage a comeback against Clemson like they did against Wake Forest and Appalachian State.

In the fourth quarter this season, UNC has outscored opponents 51-16. But dominating Clemson in the fourth was an unlikely scenario.

The Tigers’ largest lead was seven points in the fourth quarter.

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3. Stuffed the run

Etienne is one of the best running backs in the country, and when he gets out in space, he’s capable of breaking for a touchdown. He showed that in Clemson’s season-opener against Georgia Tech, where he had 205 rushing yards and three touchdowns.

But the Tar Heels were prepared for him. They held Etienne to 67 yards on 14 carries, one touchdown and the key fumble. UNC held him well below his 98.7-yard season average.

Clemson finished with 125 rushing yards as a team, and had only nine rushing yards in the fourth quarter.

Because UNC stymied Clemson’s running game, it forced Clemson to throw more. That allowed UNC defensive coordinator Jay Bateman to put pressure on Clemson sophomore quarterback Trevor Lawrence.

4. Got pressure on the quarterback

Lawrence was under duress all game, and the blitzes came from all over. The Tar Heels had seven quarterback hurries, including three from junior linebacker Chazz Surratt.

While the Tar Heels had only one sack, the pressure was enough to make plays difficult for Lawrence.

UNC’s pressure caused deflections, and caused Lawrence to overthrow passes to a few of his receivers.

Lawrence finished the game 18 of 30 for 206 yards and one passing touchdown. He also had 45 rushing yards and one rushing touchdown.

The pressure also got to the Tigers’ offensive line, which had four false starts in the second half.

“I think we can play with anybody in the country, if we come out play and we prepare like we’re supposed to,” UNC senior safety Myles Dorn said Saturday after the game.

5. Took care of the football

The Tar Heels’ top priority against Clemson was to secure the football. They couldn’t turn over the ball and give away points if they were going to win. Coming into the game, Clemson averaged two turnovers per game, and had five interceptions and three fumble recoveries.

There were a few close calls on Saturday — a few tipped passes that could have been interceptions — but the Tar Heels were efficient and did not give Clemson any extra possessions.

The Tar Heels turned the ball over three times against App State. Heading into the fourth quarter, UNC was down by 10, a hole too big to climb out of, even after a rally late in the game.

That wasn’t the case against the Tigers.

Against Clemson, UNC forced a turnover in the second quarter and turned it into a touchdown. The more possessions UNC has, the better.

“This shows us what we can be,” coach Mack Brown told reporters after Saturday’s loss. “I told the guys we had the best Sunday practice, Tuesday practice ... Friday they were so locked in ... I also told them that if you do that every week, we have a chance every week to win the rest of the games.”

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Jonathan M. Alexander has been covering the North Carolina Tar Heels since May 2018. He previously covered Duke basketball and recruiting in the ACC. He is an alumnus of N.C. Central University.
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