CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — No. 1 Clemson found itself in an early hole and had to fight its way out, edging out North Carolina in a low-scoring 21-20 thriller in Chapel Hill.
The Tigers were led by a defense that held the Tar Heels to just 290 yards of offense, flipped the game early in the fourth quarter with a fourth-down stop near midfield and then won the game with a stop on North Carolina’s two-point conversion attempt with less than two minutes remaining in the game.
Trevor Lawrence didn’t have a ton of highlights, but his pass to Tee Higgins on a go-ahead touchdown immediately followed the Tigers’ fourth down stop and gave Clemson its first lead of the game.
It was a huge game for Higgins, who finished with six catches for 129 yards, but the Clemson passing game was hit-or-miss across four quarters of action. Lawrence finished with just 206 yards on 18-of-30 passing, but he did prove to be effective as a runner with 45 rushing yards and a score on 11 attempts. Some of that was a result of North Carolina’s gameplan, which left safeties deep in the field to help its young cornerbacks against Higgins, Justyn Ross and the rest of Clemson’s future pro wide receivers. With defenders out of the box and away from the line of scrimmage, Clemson leaned heavily on the ground game and short passes that were covered up well by North Carolina’s defense.
“Obviously we made enough mistakes to lose the game,” Dabo Swinney said after the game, noting that they’d much rather learn lessons from a win than a loss. “They probably outplayed us. We made critical mistakes at critical times. We’ll grow from it.”
Swinney routinely mentioned the penalties, false starts and mistakes on offense that kept the Tigers from ever getting into a rhythm on offense. He credited North Carolina’s gameplan of slowing down the game, forcing Clemson to put together long drives and eating up clock on offense. In a shortened game, mistakes are more costly, and Swinney said the Tigers’ errors played right into the hands of the Tar Heels, who were every bit up for the challenge with No. 1 in town.
“I know we’re supposed destroy everybody like no one else has scholarships, no one else has coaches. But we’re not perfect,” Swinney said. “We don’t coach perfect. But we found a way to win. Kind of an ugly game in a lot of ways, but you’ve got to give the other team some credit.”
If Clemson is being measured to the team it was a year ago, then the Tigers have fallen short of expectations so far in 2019. Their wins against Texas A&M and North Carolina have been the by-product of great defense and just enough explosive plays to secure the victory. The last impression and lasting memory from the 2018-19 season for Clemson was Lawrence picking apart the Alabama defense in a 44-16 win, and the postgame assumption was that if he was doing that against the Tide, then the rest of the ACC — and the rest of college football — was going to be his for the taking in 2019.
“People wonder what’s wrong with us, there’s nothing wrong with us. It’s college football, and we’re trying to get better,” Swinney said.
Maybe we shouldn’t be measuring Clemson against what it was last year and instead focus on what we’ve seen through five games. It’s possible that the Tigers are on a track to return to the College Football Playoff but also maybe a little bit overrated by the general public. Both things can be true: the Tigers can be overrated and also the No. 1 team in the country.
That’s because no team is complete in late September and no one knows this better than Dabo. The Clemson staff has extensive experience navigating a 15-game schedule and all it takes to return to the College Football Playoff is to win every game on the schedule. They don’t seem to care much for style points or matching the 2019 expectations that were set in San Jose in January, but instead remain focused on finishing one point better than the opponent 13 times between August and December to give themselves yet another shot at a national championship.
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