No. 1 Clemson finally got a scare, and it survived. Barely.
The top-ranked Tigers, boasting a 19-game winning streak, marched into Chapel Hill to take on North Carolina and faced a much tougher challenge than most expected. North Carolina had a chance to take the lead with a two-point conversion with 1:14 to play, but the Tar Heels were stuffed and the Tigers escaped with a 21-20 victory.
The game was tied at 14-14 entering the fourth quarter, and the Tar Heels were driving into Clemson territory. But Clemson’s defense would step up, getting a stop on fourth-and-short near midfield.
The Tigers’ offense then capitalized on the good field position when Trevor Lawrence found Tee Higgins for a go-ahead 38-yard touchdown catch. That score proved to be the game-winner, even after UNC freshman quarterback Sam Howell took his team the length of the field in the final minutes. Javonte Williams’ one-yard plunge cut the Clemson lead to 21-20, and Mack Brown opted to go for two and the lead.
The Tar Heels dialed up an option play, and Howell was smothered by an array of Clemson defenders. The pitch somehow made its way to a UNC back, but Clemson was there to get the stop.
From there, UNC tried an onside kick, but Clemson recovered it and took a knee to finally breathe a sigh of relief.
Clemson’s offense has issues to sort out
As hard as North Carolina played, it felt like Clemson was kind of going through the motions for most of the first half — especially on offense. UNC marched right down the field and scored on its first drive, so Clemson was playing from behind all afternoon. But the Tigers still seemed to have a lack of urgency even after tying the score at 7-7 early in the second quarter.
The game was tied 14-14 at halftime, and Lawrence had constant pressure in his face throughout the third quarter. By the time that frame ended, Clemson had just 42 yards of offense with a turnover on downs and three punts. It was ugly. Lawrence wasn’t without fault either. Yes, he was under pressure, but he missed some throws he usually converts in yet another example of Lawrence not being quite as sharp as he was during Clemson’s CFP run a year ago.
But Lawrence made the big throw when it mattered. His game-winning connection with Higgins came on third-and-6, and it was arguably his best pass of the afternoon.
The Tigers are fortunate to leave Chapel Hill with the victory, and now Dabo Swinney will have plenty of material to get his team’s attention moving forward. And if recent years are any indication — Clemson barely beat Syracuse in Week 5 last year — the Tigers will be just fine.
Clemson is now 5-0 entering a bye week with games against Florida State and Louisville on the horizon.
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