With No. 1 Clemson coming to town, North Carolina wanted to see how it stacked up against the best team in the country.
On Saturday, the Tar Heels got their answer.
They were good, and quite impressive at times. But they were not good enough to pull off the upset, and lost 21-20 to the Tigers.
They had a chance to win.
After scoring a touchdown to cut Clemson’s lead to one point with less than two minutes left, UNC coach Mack Brown decided to go for the two-point conversion instead of trying to tie the game with the extra point.
UNC freshman quarterback Sam Howell ran an option, before the ball was knocked out of his hands and caught by Dazz Newsome, who was pushed out of bounds two yards short of the goal line.
Clemson (5-0) extended the nation’s longest winning streak to 20 games with the win over UNC (2-3).
The Tar Heels had been so good in the fourth quarters of games this year. They had outscored their opponents 45-9, and engineered two fourth-quarter comebacks. They played close with Clemson the entire game, which was tied at 14 at the half.
But the Tigers are No. 1 for a reason. Their win streak dates back to January 1, 2018, and they have won two of the past four national championships.
On fourth-and-one, from the Clemson 45-yard line with 12:34 left, Brown elected to go for it. The Tar Heels ran it with sophomore running back Javonte Williams, but he came up short of the first down line, and Clemson took over.
“I felt like we couldn’t win the game unless we were going to make a fourth-and-one in the fourth quarter,” Brown said in explaining why they went for it.
Six plays later, Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence threw a 38-yard pass to wide receiver Tee Higgins for a touchdown to give the Tigers their first lead with 9:54 left in the game.
Lawrence finished Saturday’s game 18 of 30 for 206 yards and a touchdown. He also had a rushing touchdown.
UNC freshman Sam Howell finished 15 of 27 for 144 yards and two touchdowns.
The last time an unranked team beat a No. 1 team was Sept. 25, 2008, when Oregon State defeated Southern California 27-21.
While UNC came close, that streak will stand.
UNC recovered its first fumble of the season against the Tigers. Coming into Saturday’s game, the Tar Heels were one of only eight teams in the country without a fumble recovery. In the second quarter, UNC linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel knocked the ball out of Clemson running back Travis Etienne’s hands.
UNC senior defensive lineman Jason Strowbridge recovered it around midfield, and the Tar Heels were able to turn the turnover into points.
A 10-yard touchdown pass from Howell to junior wide receiver Beau Corrales gave UNC a 14-7 lead with 7:55 left in the second quarter.
The Tar Heels went toe-to-toe with the national champions up until the the end of the third quarter.
The Tar Heels held the lead for most of the first half until the Tigers tied the game on a three-yard rushing touchdown by Lawrence with 33 seconds left in the second quarter. Clemson did not take the lead until 9:54 left in the fourth quarter.
The Tar Heels limited their mistakes and gave themselves a chance to win this game at the end.
“I told them in my 31 years of coaching, I’ve never been prouder of their effort,” Brown said. “Because if I’m a reflection of the way those guys fought their guts out tonight, I’m very, very proud of that.”
But the Tar Heels’ failed two-point conversion at the end of the game was ultimately the difference.
The Tar Heels defense struggled to get off the field on third downs. Some of the credit should go to Lawrence, who remained calm under pressure, and made some big throws on the run, and scrambled for a few first downs.
His 16-yard back shoulder fade to Tee Higgins on third-and-four was a work of art. It extended the Tigers’ drive and they scored a short time later.
Clemson finished the game 8-for-15 on third downs.
“Trevor Lawrence — anybody who thinks he shouldn’t be in the Heisman race didn’t watch this game,” Brown said. “We’re after him all night, and he runs away, is throwing side ways, and he made a play down here to No. 5 that was one of the best plays I’ve ever seen. It should have been a sack and it was a 15-yard gain.”
UNC junior safety Myles Wolfolk, who leads the ACC with three interceptions this season, did not play on Saturday. He has a lower leg injury and is out indefinitely. UNC backup quarterback Jace Ruder also missed the game with a lower body injury and he is also out indefinitely.
Senior left tackle Charlie Heck, who missed last week’s game against Appalachian State with a broken hand, played against Clemson with a cast.
In the fourth quarter, it appeared UNC senior defensive tackle Aaron Crawford suffered a head injury when his helmet hit teammate and freshman safety Cam Kelly’s knee.
Kelly limped off the field. Crawford was evaluated inside the team’s tent.
4 False start penalties for Clemson in the second half. Jay Bateman’s defense had the Clemson offense confused all game.
3 The number of penalties the Tar Heels had. The offensive line had a few false starts, but for the most part the Tar Heels were disciplined.
0 In three tries, teams have yet to convert on fourth down against the Tar Heels’ defense this season. Clemson tried on fourth-and-six, but came up short.