A November to remember indeed.
It’s far too late to affect anything in terms of the ACC championship game or a top bowl placement, but Clemson football’s putting together a heck of a final month.
The Tigers on Saturday knocked off their second ranked opponent at home in three weeks, taking down No. 22 UNC, 31-20, for a third straight win after a 4-4 start.
Running back Will Shipley was dominant with 179 total yards, quarterback Cade Klubnik kept the ball out of harm’s way and Clemson’s swarming defense, which coach Dabo Swinney described as “championship level” earlier this month, survived a huge test against one of the nation’s top offenses.
The Tigers kept star quarterback and top NFL talent Drake Maye in check, allowing 400-plus yards but only three touchdowns against three sacks and turnovers, and churned out 200-plus rushing yards for a second straight game.
Clemson (7-4, 4-4 ACC) led by two or more scores most of the second half against UNC (8-3, 4-3 ACC), the second ranked opponent to trip up in Memorial Stadium. The Tigers defeated No. 12 Notre Dame two weeks ago and now finish a critical three-game homestand against ND, Georgia Tech and UNC 3-0.
Clemson isn’t going to play in a New Year’s Six Bowl or the ACC championship game (that’ll be Florida State vs. Louisville). And a 12-year streak of 10-plus wins is over.
A strong finish, though, remains clearer than ever. With a win at rival South Carolina next week, Clemson can finish 8-4, make an upper-tier ACC bowl and prove to college football that, in Swinney’s words, the Tigers’ stock is still worth buying.
“What a great football game,” Swinney said. “What a great win for our guys. Special day for a lot of reasons … For our seniors, there’s nothing better than those guys being able to walk off that field one last time a winner. … And it’s three turnover margins that we’ve won in a row and three wins in a row. It’s amazing the correlation there. We’re playing our best football and it’s fun to watch.”
On the first drive of the game, UNC running back Omarion Hampton — who entered the game with zero lost fumbles this season — coughed the ball up at the 7-yard line.
On the fourth drive of the game, Clemson decided against keeping its offense on the field for fourth 1 … and instead chose to directly snap the ball to Tyler Davis, a defensive tackle, on a poorly executed fake punt that resulted in a loss of seven.
And that was only the start to a delightfully weird first half of football between the Tigers and the Tar Heels in Death Valley.
The Tigers’ second unsuccessful fake punt in as many ways cleared the way for Maye to deliver his first iconic play of the afternoon, a beautifully lofted throw off his back foot for a 33-yard touchdown in the first quarter.
Clemson looked to be in even more trouble when, on the following UNC possession, ACC rushing yards leader Hampton broke off a 64-yard run down the sideline.
But Tigers cornerback Nate Wiggins made an all-time effort play, chasing down Hampton from behind and stripping the ball out at the 1-yard line and into the end zone for a touchback to give Clemson possession back. (Social media, though, wondered if Wiggins had slightly been out of bounds when he forced the fumble, which would’ve nullified the play.)
Add in Hampton’s first fumble of the game, which followed a 43-yard completion from Maye on fourth down, and it very well could’ve been 21-0 UNC after one quarter. Instead, the Tar Heels only led by one touchdown.
A Klubnik fourth-down conversion via quarterback sneak set up Clemson’s opening score, a 3-yard pass from Klubnik to rising star tight end Jake Briningstool.
Amid a strong defensive showing against one of the nation’s top offenses and quarterbacks, though, Clemson couldn’t convert another golden opportunity when running back Will Shipley fumbled the ball at UNC’s 6-yard line with 2 minutes left.
Linebacker Jeremiah Trotter Jr.’s sack of Maye on the following possession gave the offense another opportunity. Finally, after one touchdown on its previous seven drives, that unit delivered — with a few calls going its way.
Klubnik threw a bad interception into double coverage with under a minute left in the second quarter, but a questionable late hit penalty on a UNC defender nullified the turnover.
Playing with zero timeouts, Clemson and offensive coordinator Garrett Riley stayed aggressive and it paid off — just barely — when Klubnik ran in a 3-yard touchdown with one second remaining in the second quarter.
Referees called the play a touchdown on the field and upheld that ruling on review. It was close — close enough that if the refs had ruled Klubnik’s knee down before he reached across the goal line, that probably would’ve stood after review, too.
Instead, two weeks after taking it to then-No. 12 Notre Dame, Clemson entered halftime leading 14-7 and had another ranked opponent on the ropes.
The teams exchanged touchdowns in a higher scoring third quarter, with Clemson going up two scores on Phil Mafah’s 3-yard wildcat rushing touchdown on fourth and 1 (21-7) and UNC striking back with Hampton’s 55-yard tackle-breaking touchdown strut (21-14).
Clemson didn’t blink — Shipley’s 33-yard touchdown run through traffic put him over 100 rushing yards and the Tigers up 28-14 on the Tar Heels late in the third.
Clemson benefited from a few huge fourth-down plays in that quarter: sacking Maye on fourth-and-6 near midfield to set up Mafah’s touchdown, and getting UNC to jump offside on fourth-and-1 to set up Shipley’s touchdown.
The Tigers, who played pretty well all things considered against top NFL Draft talent Maye in last year’s ACC championship game, kept things going with a short Jonathan Weitz field goal (31-14) after the defense forced a fifth punt. Shipley was once again the highlight on that drive, with a huge 36-yard catch.
UNC got within 31-20 on another Hampton rushing touchdown (the Tar Heels failed on the two-point conversion) but didn’t score again as Clemson stopped Maye on fourth-and-20 and intercepted him on the next two possessions with the Tar Heels down 11.
Next Clemson game
Who: Clemson at South Carolina
When: 7:30 p.m. next Saturday
Where: Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia
TV: SEC Network
This story was originally published November 18, 2023, 7:30 PM.