Clemson is still undefeated following a trip to Chapel Hill to face North Carolina, but barely. The Tigers escaped with a 21-20 victory against Mack Brown’s squad, getting a two-point conversion stop with 1:17 left to hang on for the win.
Clemson is 5-0 heading into its first open week and will look to improve before hosting Florida State on Oct. 12. Here are five things we learned from the win over UNC.
1. The offense isn’t right
It’s not panic time for the Clemson offense, but this is also more than just one off day. Clemson finished with 331 yards of offense against UNC, its lowest total since the Sugar Bowl loss against Alabama to end the 2017 season. The Tigers failed to reach 400 yards of offense for the second time in their first five games (Clemson had 389 yards in Week 2 against Texas A&M). The Tigers had at least 413 yards of offense in every game in 2018.
It wasn’t that Clemson was facing the 1985 Bears defense. North Carolina allowed an average of 436 yards of offense and 27 points to its previous three opponents — Miami, Wake Forest and Appalachian State — before holding Clemson to 21 points and 331 total yards on Saturday. The Tigers need to use the bye week to self scout and get their issues figured out.
2. Clemson didn’t come out focused
The Tigers had mental mistakes all afternoon and from the opening series looked a little off. UNC went 75 yards in four plays for a touchdown to open the game, scoring the first points Clemson has allowed in the first quarter all season. The Tigers committed six penalties on the afternoon. Five of the penalties were false starts and Clemson also opened an offensive series with 12 men on the field, leading to a substitution infraction. On another instance, Clemson’s defense only had 10 players on the field and Dabo Swinney had to call timeout.
“Just a lack of discipline. Lack of discipline, lack of poise, lack of focus,” Swinney said. “We had 12 men (on the field) off the sideline. We don’t have stuff like that. (Travis) Etienne and Lyn-J (Dixon) both thought they were in the game. That’s coaching. That’s on us. That’s stupid stuff. Then I had to use the timeout on the goal line, we had our call wrong. It’s everything. It’s across the board.”
3. This team can win ugly
There is something to be said for finding a way to win when you don’t play your best, and that is what Clemson did against North Carolina. The Tigers found ways to win close games in past years, most recently last year against Syracuse and Texas A&M. But this year’s team, with seven new starters on defense, had yet to be tested for four quarters. That changed against the Tar Heels, and when Clemson had to make a two-point stop to ensure the victory, they did.
“Whether we win by one point or 50 points, it’s a win,” Swinney said. “It’s kind of like when I make birdie in golf, most of the time when I make a birdie it usually hits off of a tree, runs across the green, hits off the golf cart, bounces back up there close to the flag. I putt it in and I write three on my scorecard. There are no pictures on a scorecard. A win is a win. I’d rather learn a lesson with a win than learn with a loss any day.”
4. More designed runs are coming for Trevor Lawrence
No, the passing game hasn’t clicked consistently this season, but what has been perhaps even more surprising is the inconsistency in the running game. Swinney said North Carolina was playing coverage and not loading the box, which should have given Etienne and Dixon running lanes. But the offensive line didn’t get much of a push as Clemson’s running backs combined for 87 yards on 18 carries. Lawrence had a career-high 11 rushing attempts and finished with 45 yards and a touchdown. His 3-yard touchdown run on third-and-goal from the 3 late in the third quarter to tie the game at 14 was a designed keeper, and we may see more designed quarterback runs moving forward as Clemson searches for ways to get the running game going.
“They forced us to run him a little bit, and man, he ran tough,” Swinney said. “He made some key plays to move the chains for us.”
5. Clemson could see North Carolina again
There is still no clear cut favorite to win the Coastal Division, and North Carolina certainly looked like a team capable of doing so on Saturday. Freshman quarterback Sam Howell, who passed for 144 yards and a pair of touchdowns against the Tigers without turning the ball over, should continue to get better and better as the season goes along. And UNC has plenty of pieces around him to stay in the mix. Mack Brown is doing a sensational job in Year 1, and UNC defensive coordinator Jay Bateman put together a great game plan for Clemson. The challenge now is for North Carolina to play with that same effort and grittiness week in and week out.
“I’d probably say they probably outplayed us... How about North Carolina? Man, what can you say about that group?” Swinney said. “It’s disrespectful to just put it all on us. You’ve gotta give them some credit. Those kids played their hearts out and they coached their hearts out. They played with tremendous will to win.”
Who: Florida State (2-2, 1-1) at No. 1 Clemson (5-0, 3-0)
When: Oct. 5, TBA
Where: Memorial Stadium (Clemson)