The Tar Heels (3-2) defeated the Tigers (2-3) for the first time since 2001 and never trailed in their first ACC win. White delivered UNC’s first game-opening touchdown of the season with a four-yard run, and after a Chandler Catanzaro 48-yard field goal, T.J. Yates (18-of-34 passing, 164 yards, TD) found Jhay Boyd for a nine-yard touchdown pass to increase the home team’s lead to 14-3 heading into halftime.
Clemson closed the gap in the third quarter with a 10-yard Jamie Harper touchdown run. The Tar Heels capitalized on a mammoth 14-play, 76-yard fourth-quarter drive that soaked up nearly eight minutes off the clock with another White touchdown from 26 yards out. Kyle Parker (21-of-38 passing, 214 yards, TD) kept the Tigers in the contest with a 74-yard touchdown strike to Jaron Brown with 5:31 remaining, but White churned out 46 yards on UNC’s final possession to nearly erase the clock.
White rushed for more yards (89) and gained more receiving yards (90) than any player on either team.
The Tar Heels posted a season-low 255 yards of total offense, but the defense provided another strong performance by holding standout tailbacks Harper (27 yards, TD) and Andre Ellington (55 yards) to a combined 82 yards on the ground. Clemson generated 305 yards of offense, but only reached the red zone once on the afternoon.
Linebacker Zach Brown totaled 14 tackles in his best day as a Tar Heel, and linebacker Kevin Reddick added 10 tackles and two pass breakups of his own.
Saturday’s victory marked the second-straight game that North Carolina has not committed a turnover, a feat that has not been accomplished since 1996.
INSIDE THE GAME
Rolling the Dice
At first glance, North Carolina’s 3-of-14 third-down conversion mark wouldn’t seem to suggest an efficient outing for the offense. But contrary to his oft-criticized conservative approach, Butch Davis elected to roll the dice on fourth down several times instead of sending the kicking unit out.
Facing a 4th-and-2 at Clemson’s 26-yard-line midway through the first quarter, no one would have barked if Davis had sent in Casey Barth to try for an early 3-0 lead. But the offense stayed on the field, and Yates found Jhay Boyd for a five-yard completion.
Six plays later, White scored the game’s first touchdown on a four-yard scamper.
In the second quarter, the Tar Heels were looking at a 4th-and-1 at Clemson’s 11-yard-line, and once again, Davis went aggressive and White fought for two yards and the first down. Two plays later, Yates found Boyd for a nine-yard touchdown pass.
North Carolina delivered two more crucial fourth-down conversions in the fourth quarter. Yates utilized a quarterback sneak for two yards on 4th-and-1 and then four plays later, the fifth-year senior found White for a 12-yard pass play on 4th-and-4. Less than a minute later, White darted into the end zone for a 26-yard touchdown.
The Tar Heels scored a touchdown on all three possessions in which they converted a fourth-down opportunity.
“It was more circumstances,” Yates said when asked about his offense attempting four fourth-down conversions. “I guess Coach Davis has a lot of confidence in our play calls and the things we can do on fourth down. It gives the guys on offense a whole lot of confidence that he’ll keep going for it on fourth down.”
North Carolina is now 6-of-10 on fourth-down conversions this season.
Special Teams Coverage
North Carolina entered Saturday’s game ranked 111th nationally in punt return yardage defense (19.78 ypk) and 83rd in kickoff return yardage defense (22.7 ypk), thanks in large part to the 11 Tar Heels sidelined due to the NCAA investigation. Clemson countered with one of the top return men in the country in Marcus Gilchrist (17.1 yards per punt return, 9th nationally).
But in a battle most expected the Tigers to win, UNC turned the tables and nearly won the matchup in impressive fashion. Clemson managed just 78 total yards on seven return attempts, and Gilchrist netted two yards on three punt returns. The only blemish on North Carolina’s resume occurred midway through the third quarter when DeAndre Hopkins returned a short C.J. Feagles punt 31 yards to the UNC 21-yard-line.
“We played so poorly in the LSU game,” UNC head coach Butch Davis said. “The kids that are playing now, a lot of those are the same kids that played in that game and it was their first time. It was baptism under fire and they were learning how to avoid blocks in space and how to read some of the returns.”
And while Feagles is likely responsible for some new gray hair throughout the Tar Heel fan base due to his 33.0-yards-per-punt average, it was his ability to deliver sufficient hang time that helped the punt coverage excel against the Tigers.
Carolina Blue Rally Cap
No one would have blamed the Tar Heels for hanging their heads after falling behind LSU 30-10 in the season opener five weeks ago. But this North Carolina program roared back in the second half against the Tigers and it has continued to fight through a seemingly constant barrage of NCAA tidal waves.
The latest news broke two hours before kickoff on Saturday afternoon when junior fullback Devon Ramsay became the latest Tar Heel held out of action for his involvement in the investigation. But despite the harsh spotlight on this program, the coaching staff and players have refused to give in.
“We never gave up on ourselves,” said Deunta Williams, who tallied five tackles in his first game back after serving a four-game suspension. “… Nobody really expected much out of us, so it wasn’t like we had anything to lose. We just went out and played.”
Because of that effort, UNC has now won three straight and has its sights set on snapping “The Curse” that looms large in Charlottesville next weekend.
“It’s awesome – just the perseverance that this team has,” Yates said. “The things that we can do with the amount of stuff that’s going on around this program is amazing. Guys are just focusing in and worrying about things on the football field, and only the things on the football field, is just huge for us.
“If this team can get through something like this, then we can get through anything.”