The last time North Carolina played against Clemson’s quarterback Deshaun Watson, it wasn’t pretty.
It was Sept. 27, 2014, and Watson’s first collegiate start. The then 19-year-old true freshman scorched the Tar Heels defense, completing 27 of his 36 passes for 435 yards, while throwing for six touchdowns and one interception. It still stands as the most touchdowns passes he has thrown in a single game.
It was sort of a coming out party for Watson, who has continued to succeed at Clemson, and is in consideration for the Heisman Trophy, college football’s top individual honor.
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The memories of that game are still fresh in the minds of the No. 8 Tar Heels as they get set to face Watson and his No. 1 Tigers again on Saturday, in an ACC championship game that has potential playoff implications for both teams. But this time around, UNC heads into the game with a defense that’s improved under the leadership of new defensive coordinator Gene Chizik, who’s in his first year at North Carolina.
UNC linebacker Jeff Schoettmer said he didn’t want to talk about Watson’s play last year. He said the Tar Heels are a much different team.
“Our defense was the worst in the ACC and we’ve made such significant strides,” Schoettmer said. “They are a talented team. They are No. 1 in the country for a reason.
“(Watson’s) a hell of a player. He’s got weapons all over the field. So it’s going to be a hell of a matchup. But we’re not worried about anything that happened last year.”
The Tar Heels’ defense last year, which gave up 70 points to East Carolina, ended the season ranked 120 in total defense out of 128 teams. It allowed 3,126 rushing yards, 3,346 passing yards and 497.8 yards per game.
This year, after 12 games, the defense is ranked No. 65, and has allowed 2499 rushing yards, 2240 passing yards and 394.9 yards per game.
While the Tar Heels’ defense has improved, so has Watson and Clemson’s offense.
Schoettmer said Saturday he hasn’t watched much film of Watson, except for a few highlights on ESPN and Clemson’s 24-22 win over No. 9 Notre Dame.
But he recognizes that Watson, at 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds, is a dynamic play maker.
In 12 games this season, he has accounted for 36 touchdowns, 27 in the air, and 9 on the ground. He averages 268.6 passing yards per game, 63 yards rushing and has a 70.4 passing percentage.
“He was a freshman last year, but he had the poise of a senior. He’s wise beyond his years. He’s definitely a talented player,” Schoettmer said. “He’s up for the Heisman, but that’s the big thing we like. Facing a challenge and a big test. That’s fun for a defense to go against the best. If you want to be the best you have to beat the best.”
UNC quarterback Marquise Williams said Monday, he hasn’t had much interaction with Watson, but he sees the similarities between he and Watson, both being dual threats.
“I’m all up for guys doing it just like me,” Williams said. “Guys like us don’t get too much credit, you know? People think we wouldn’t be able to make it to the pros with what we’re doing. But I look at him and he’s a phenomenal athlete. He’s done a great job to keep those guys 12-0.”
Wide receiver Quinshad Davis doesn’t remember much of what Watson did to the Tar Heels last year because he was worried about the offensive side of the ball. But he said he has watched him this year.
“He’s a very good athlete,” Davis said. “A very talented person. A very intelligent person from what I see and he makes a lot of plays. It’s going to interesting to watch him play live Saturday.”
Linebacker Shakeel Rashad says the Tar Heels defense will have their hands full Saturday against the Tigers.
However, he said he was no more motivated, knowing that all the talk will be on Watson.
“Whether it is a sixth-grader under center or a Heisman trophy candidate, you just want to beat him,” Rashad said. “Because you’re so competitive. Everyone has put so much into it and obviously the guys on their team are the same way. We’ve put so much in our whole lives, and since January – specifically into this season – that you don’t want anybody to go take it from you.”