Clemson coach Dabo Swinney called his last trip to Chapel Hill in 2010 a “miserable night” when previewing this week’s game.
His Tigers were a couple of yards away from having another miserable night on Saturday.
No. 1 Clemson stuffed North Carolina’s two-point conversion try with 1:17 remaining as the Tigers held on for a 21-20 victory at Kenan Stadium. The win is Clemson’s 20th consecutive victory dating to the start of the 2018 season.
“I am unbelievably proud of our guys for finding a way to win, because that’s what it’s all about,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “Obviously, made enough mistakes to lose the game. I’d probably say they outplayed us. We had a lot of mistakes. A lot of critical errors at critical times. But when we had to make a play, we made it and that’s what winners do.”
On the deciding two-point conversion play, UNC snapped the ball to quarterback Sam Howell, who faked a handoff to running back Javonte Williams. Howell ran the option to the right with receiver Dazz Newsome, who was in motion on the play, but Clemson defenders were in place.
Clemson had the pitch man covered, forcing Howell to lower his head and try to reach the end zone. But three Clemson defenders converged upon Howell, who pitched the ball backwards to Newsome as he was falling to the ground. Newsome had nowhere to run and was knocked out of bounds to preserve the win.
“It was a heck of a play right there. It came down to one play and that’s what happens a lot of times,” Swinney said. “We made the play that we had to make to win the game.”
Few predicted the game would come down to one play entering the afternoon.
Clemson (5-0, 3-0) was favored by nearly four touchdowns but did not take its first lead until a 38-yard touchdown pass from Trevor Lawrence to Tee Higgins with 9:54 remaining. Then UNC (2-3, 1-1) answered right back.
The Tar Heels drove 75 yards in 16 plays, taking 8:32 off the clock, before Williams scored from a yard out with 1:17 left to cut Clemson’s lead to 21-20. North Carolina coach Mack Brown called timeout and opted to go for the two-point conversion and the lead rather than kicking the extra point and playing for overtime.
The Tigers’ offense, which had its share of struggles through the first four weeks of the season, once again had a hard time finding its rhythm.
Clemson finished with 331 yards, its lowest total since the Sugar Bowl to end the 2017 season.
Star of the game: Isaiah Simmons was once again the best player on the field. The sophomore had a game-high 10 tackles, including 2.5 tackles for loss and a sack.
Play of the game: Trevor Lawrence had plenty of struggles on Saturday, but he made a big-time throw when the Tigers really needed it. With the game tied at 14 early in the fourth quarter, Lawrence threw a dart to Higgins for a 38-yard touchdown on third-and-six.
Stat of the game: 331: The 331 yards of offense by Clemson was its lowest total since the 2017 Sugar Bowl.
When in doubt, throw it up to Tee Higgins: Clemson’s star receiver caught six passes for 129 yards and a touchdown, further cementing his place as Lawrence’s go-to receiver. Justyn Ross received a lot of praise going into the year, but Higgins has been far-and-away Clemson’s best receiver through five games.
Don’t sleep on North Carolina: The Tar Heels outplayed Clemson for most of the game as Mack Brown continues to do a stellar job in his first year. UNC also has a rising star at quarterback in Sam Howell.
Clemson’s offense needs to finds its rhythm: The Tigers had four three-and-outs and failed to score on eight of their 11 drives.
Who: Florida State (2-2, 1-1) at No. 1 Clemson (5-0, 3-0)
When: Oct. 5, TBA
Where: Memorial Stadium (Clemson)