So many times this season, with the result decided, victory in hand, the start of the fourth quarter had been cause for celebration for North Carolina. Sometimes the Tar Heels danced before the start of fourth quarters. Sometimes they urged their crowd to make noise.
When they huddled before the start off the fourth quarter on Saturday they looked tired, beaten. Defeat seemed imminent. UNC trudged back onto the field and four minutes later Clemson finished off a long touchdown drive that was symbolic of its 45-37 victory in the ACC Championship Game.
The story on Saturday night at Bank of America Stadium: Clemson, the nation’s No. 1 team, gained more than 600 yards and built a lead that was once as large as 19 points. The Tar Heels wore down, meanwhile, and their late rally ended, perhaps, with a poor call on an onside kick.
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After UNC quarterback Marquise Williams threw a 17-yard touchdown pass to Ryan Switzer with 73 seconds to play, the Tar Heels attempted an onside kick and recovered. There was a flag, though, and an offsides penalty.
Television replays suggested that nobody was offsides, though. UNC coach Larry Fedora protested the call, which wasn’t reviewable. The Tar Heels attempted another onside kick and Clemson recovered before running out the clock, partly thanks to UNC burning a timeout to have second onside kick recovery challenged.
The Tar Heels arrived in Charlotte seeking their first ACC title since 1980 and another storybook moment in what has been their most memorable season in 18 years. They left with a defeat that ends their hope of making the College Football Playoff.
UNC during its 11-game winning streak – the longest in a single-season in school history – rallied from a 21-point deficit at Georgia Tech, won at Virginia Tech in overtime in coach Frank Beamer’s final home game and set records amid domination against Duke and Miami.
Along the way, though, UNC never encountered a team nearly as formidable as it did on Saturday night. That was clear enough during the first half, when Clemson’s defense held the Tar Heels’ offense to 103 yards and an average of 3.7 yards per play.
And it was clear, again and again, on all of the Tigers’ long, time-sucking touchdown drives. Those drives served two purposes, aside from the points they created: For one they kept UNC’s powerful offense off the field. Second, they kept UNC’s defense on the field, and it seemed to tire.
Clemson in the second quarter scored on a 12-play, 96-yard drive that ended with Deshaun Watson’s 9-yard touchdown run, which gave the Tigers a 14-9 lead. The Tigers in the third quarter scored on a 13-play, 97-yard drive that ended in Wayne Gallman’s 3-yard touchdown run, which gave his team a 28-16 lead.
Before Saturday the Tar Heels’ rebuilt defense had been one of the primary reasons for UNC’s success. UNC allowed more than 500 yards last month in victories against Duke and N.C. State, but those yards often came after UNC had built large leads.
Against Clemson, though, the Tar Heels had few answers defensively. They could do little to slow Gallman, who ran for 185 yards on 27 carries. Gallman’s longest run was 31 yards, and UNC rarely allowed him that much open space. He took advantage of what little he had, though, and often kept the Tigers offense moving four or five or six yards at a time.
Meanwhile Watson, the Tigers quarterback who is likely to be a finalist for Heisman Trophy, took what UNC gave him. Which was often short or intermediate routes over the middle. He threw for 289 yards and three touchdowns.
UNC allowed 608 yards and 6.2 yards per play. The total yards were a season high, and the yards per play were the second most UNC had allowed this season.
And the Tar Heels failed to keep pace offensively, too. They trailed 21-16 at halftime and appeared poised to take the lead on the first drive of the third quarter. But there the game changed, after UNC reached the Clemson 16-yard line.
The Tar Heels made it there with a 25-yard pass from Williams to Mack Hollins. On the next play Williams, who completed 11 of his 33 passes for 224 yards and three touchdowns, dropped back to pass and attempted a pass over the middle to Quinshad Davis.
It was tipped at the line of scrimmage and Clemson cornerback Cordrea Tankersley, running step for step with Davis, made the interception at the Tigers’ 3-yard line. From there Clemson began that 97-yard drive that ended in the UNC end zone.
That was the drive, the 97-yarder, when the Tar Heels’ defensive fatigue began to show. Gallman immediately moved the Tigers off of their own goal line with a 20-yard run that he nearly broke for a touchdown.
The Tigers didn’t gain more than 12 yards on any of their remaining plays on that drive, but they methodically moved down the field 11 or nine or five yards at a time until Gallman scored on a 3-yard run that gave Clemson a 28-16 lead midway through the third quarter.
From there UNC scrambled to find its way back into the game. The Tar Heels did but then ran out of time, and they walked off the field with their first defeat in three months.