Behind backup QB, Clemson dominates North Carolina in ACC title game :: WRALSportsFan.com

— North Carolina’s 9-1 start and everything that came with it is a distant memory now.

The Tar Heels, who limped into Saturday night’s ACC title game off back-to-back losses, were dismantled by Clemson 39-10 at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. UNC was seeking its first football conference title since 1980 and a second Orange Bowl appearance in three seasons.

Instead, Clemson and coach Dabo Swinney earned their seventh ACC title in eight seasons after turning to their backup quarterback in the first quarter. Clemson benched starter DJ Uiagalelei after consecutive three-and-out possessions to open the game. Freshman Cade Klubnik led the Tigers to four consecutive scoring drives to end the first half.

UNC (9-4) was making its second appearance in the conference title game, which was first held in 2005. The Tar Heels lost to Clemson in 2015.

“Good for us to get here. Now we’ve got to learn how to play, got to learn how to win.” said UNC coach Mack Brown in his fourth season since returning to the school.

Less than a month ago, the Tar Heels clinched the Coastal Division and a spot in the title game with a victory at Wake Forest. Quarterback Drake Maye was a Heisman contender. There was a path, however slim, to a berth in the College Football Playoff.

But home losses to Georgia Tech and rival NC State to close the regular season ended most of those dreams. Still that elusive conference title remained a possibility, especially since Clemson entered the game off a humbling loss of its own to South Carolina.

UNC struck first with Maye leading the Tar Heels on a 78-yard scoring drive that he capped off with a three-yard run.

But Clemson dominated from there, especially after Klubnik entered the game. Swinney faced questions all year about Uiagalelei’s status as the starter, insisting before the game that the loss to South Carolina was not the quarterback’s fault and that he would start.

“The reality is we wouldn’t have won the Atlantic and we wouldn’t be here tonight without DJ, and we wouldn’t have won the ACC Championship without Cade,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said.

Clemson (11-2) improved to 8-1 in ACC title games. The Tigers will go to the Orange Bowl and likely face Tennessee.

Klubnik entered on the third drive and immediately the Tiger offense perked up. He completed his first 10 passes, including a touchdown, caught a pass for 19 yards and scored a rushing touchdown in the first half.

“We totally thought we would see DJ because they hadn’t changed all year,” Brown said.

Clemson led 24-10 at the break, aided by a costly fumble on an exchange between Maye and running back Omarion Hampton deep in UNC territory that led to a Clemson TD. And the Tigers were helped by defensive back Nate Wiggins who had a blocked field goal and two pass breakups in the end zone in the first half.

After halftime, he delivered the knockout blow. With UNC facing a 3rd-and-goal from the Clemson 5, Wiggins picked off an errant Maye throw and returned it 98 yards for a touchdown.

“I thought throwing it away was a better answer or maybe try to run,” Maye said. “I probably should have thrown it out of the back of the end zone, but I tried to make a play out of it. It ended up costing us. Probably the play of the game.”

UNC scored one touchdown on five trips into the red zone. The others ended with the blocked field goal, a made field goal and a failed fourth-down attempt.

“If you do that, you’re not going to win games,” Brown said.

Clemson tacked on another touchdown before the fourth quarter to make it 39-10 and send many of those clad in light blue to the exits.

The Tar Heels’ explosive offense was bottled up, gaining yards but unable to capitalize on several possessions deep into Clemson territory.

Klubnik finished the game 20-for-24 for 279 yards and a touchdown. He also rushed seven times for 30 yards and a touchdown and had 19 yards receiving. Clemson took him out of the game with nine minutes left in the fourth quarter and secured its lead.

“I love football, and I just want to come out here and play the game I’ve always wanted to play,” he said. “It’s awesome.”

North Carolina played without two starters in the defensive backfield for the game. Senior safety Cam Kelly (hamstring) and junior cornerback Storm Duck (upper body injury) were injured against NC State and are out for the championship game.

The Tar Heels last won the ACC title in 1980, led by linebacker Lawrence Taylor. Maye, a redshirt freshman, became the first Tar Heel since Taylor to win ACC Player of the Year, but for a third consecutive game he was held far below his prolific early season output.

Maye was 26-for-42 passing for 268 yards and two interceptions. Maye, who entered with 35 touchdown passes, was held without a touchdown pass for just the second time this season (Georgia Tech).

“Drake is the reason we’re in the game,” Brown said. “He’s playing the best defense we’ve played all year by far. It’s one of the best defenses in the country, and we’ll all grow from playing a great team.”

The Tar Heels’ bowl destination will be announced Sunday.

Scoring summary

First quarter

UNC — Drake Maye 3 run (Noah Burnette kick), 8:50. Drive; 11 plays, 78 yards, 5:13. Key plays: Maye, under pressure, hit receiver Josh Downs for a 7-yard gain on 3rd-and-6 from the Clemson 10. On the next play, he rushed for a touchdown. North Carolina 7, Clemson 0.

Clemson — Davis Allen 1 pass from Cade Klubnik (BT Potter kick), 1:41. Drive: 9 plays, 71 yards, 4:17. Key play: Clemson turned to Klubnik, who completed all five of his pass attempts for 50 yards on the scoring drive. North Carolina 7, Clemson 7.

Clemson — Phil Mafah 4 run (Potter kick), 0:35. Drive: 2 plays, 23 yards, :40. Key play: Clemson recovered a fumble by Maye at the UNC 23 and cashed in two plays later. Klubnik caught a pass for 19 yards on the first play of the drive. Clemson 14, North Carolina 7.

Second quarter

Clemson — Klubnik 1 run (Potter kick), 6:02. Drive: 5 plays, 84 yards, 1:57. Key play: Klubnik hit receiver Cole Turner for a 68-yard pass and ran down the left sideline. Clemson 21, North Carolina 7.

UNC — Burnette 25 field goal, 1:20. Drive: 11 plays, 67 yards, 4:42. Key play: Maye hit receiver Antoine Green for six yards on 3rd-and-5, then connected with receiver Josh Downs for 28 yards. Clemson 21, North Carolina 10.

Clemson — Potter 52 field goal, 0:00. Drive: 7 plays, 40 yards, 1:20. Key play: Klubnik rushed for 16 yards on 3rd-and-6 to move Clemson into field goal range. Clemson 24, North Carolina 10.

Third quarter

Clemson — Nate Wiggins 98 interception return (Drew Swinney run), 5:05. Key play: Maye was scrambling and threw toward the end zone on 3rd-and-goal from the Clemson 5. Wiggins intercepted the pass and ran free for a touchdown. Clemson 32, North Carolina 10.

Clemson — Will Shipley 2 run (Potter kick), :42. Drive: 9 plays, 86 yards, 3:26. Key play: Klubnik found Shipley for five yards on 3rd-and-3 at the Clemson 21 to get the drive started. Clemson 39, North Carolina 10.

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