Red zones and backup QBs vex Heels again in loss to Clemson

By R.L. Bynum

CHARLOTTE — After early success, Carolina’s befuddling issues in the red zone and with backup quarterbacks continued, as did the frustrating losses.

The No. 24 Tar Heels repeatedly put together good drives, only to see them die or end with field goal attempts, with one of those blocked. 

After a promising start and a seven-point early lead, Carolina’s inability to finish drives led to a 39–10 loss to No. 10 Clemson (11–2) on Saturday in the ACC championship game.

“We were one out of five in touchdowns in the red zone. If you’re going to do that, you’re not going to win games,” said UNC coach Mack Brown, adding that he didn’t have an answer about the red-zone issues. “If I could answer that tonight, I’d be making more money than I am coaching. We’ll have to go back and look at it tonight and see what it is. It’s been a consistent problem the last three weeks, and it wasn’t the first 10, so I don’t have any idea.”

During one stretch, Carolina drove within the Clemson 15 three times but was outscored 8–3, thanks to cornerback Nate Wiggins’ 98-yard interception return for a touchdown (top photo).

That Drake Maye interception was the beginning of the end of UNC’s hopes.

“I thought he was trying to throw it to [tight end John] Copenhaver, and it just got out of control, and we got a little high, and then he tried so hard to tackle him and just couldn’t,” Brown said. “John tried to tackle him, and that’s just a freakish play that changes games. He was trying to make a play, and I think it just got out of his hands and slipped out of his hands and went over his head.”

Backup Tigers quarterback Cade Klubnik, a freshman who was voted game MVP, came in after starter DJ Uiagalelei had two three-and-outs, and finished 20 of 24 for 279 yards, one touchdown and a 194.7 passer rating.

Brown suggested that the change took his staff by surprise.

“Cade had played very little all year, and when he went in at Notre Dame, I think he threw an interception, so we totally thought we would see DJ because they hadn’t changed all year,” said Brown, who also didn’t have answers as to why backup QBs keep beating his team. “Well, it’s very difficult, and we’ve got to do a better job of it. The other thing is we’ve got a sophomore and two freshmen starting in the secondary, and you don’t want to blitz, because if you do, you leave them out there by themselves.”

UNC (9–4) will find out their bowl destination on Sunday. The most common projection is to face Oregon in the Dec. 28 Holiday Bowl in San Diego (this story details the projections).

It’s Carolina’s first three-game losing streak since Clemson’s 21–20 win in Chapel Hill on Sept. 28, 2019, was the Tar Heels’ third consecutive defeat in the first season of Brown’s second stint at UNC.

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UNC has lost both championship game appearances to Clemson and hasn’t won an ACC title since 1980.

Maye generated plenty of offense, finishing 26 of 42 for 268 yards and ran for a touchdown but threw two interceptions and fumbled on an exchange with Omarion Hampton. Josh Downs, in possibly his last game for UNC if he decides to skip the bowl game, had 11 catches for 100 yards.

“We’re moving the ball well all night, we get to the red zone, we kind of have a stall, a little stop in the road,” Maye said. “I have to make better decisions, just go to to make some plays. They had a plan when we got down there.”

UNC drove 78 yards on 11 plays in 5:13 for the game’s first touchdown after forcing Clemson into a three-and-out on the first possession. Maye completed 5 of 6 passes for 47 yards on the drive and ran the final three yards for a touchdown.

After starter Uiagalelei failed to generate a first down in the Tigers’ first two possessions, the Tigers went to Klubnik. He completed all five pass attempts for 50 yards on his first drive, including a one-yard touchdown connection with Davis Allen to tie it.

A Maye fumble two plays later gave Clemson the ball at the UNC 23. Clemson needed two plays and 40 seconds to take a 14–10 lead on Phil Mafah’s four-yard touchdown run.

“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. When you play a team that’s been in the playoffs every year for about six out of the last eight, I think, it shows you what you’ve got to do to get where we want to go, and we’re not there yet.”

UNC loaded up on frustration in a 17-play, 61-yard drive that ended with Wiggins blocking a 31-yard Noah Burnette field-goal attempt. That came one play after Wiggins could have easily drawn a pass-inference call in the end zone on a pass to Antoine Green. Maye also drew a face-mask penalty on the drive.

Klubnik connected with Cole Turner on a 68-yard pass and his 1-yard touchdown run finished a five-play drive.

Carolina settled for a 25-yard Burnette field goal after Carolina couldn’t convert on a third-and-six at the Clemson 6.

UNC went 128 yards on 28 plays in its last two first-half drives that produced only three points.

The Tigers got those three points back on B.T. Potter’s 52-yard field goal as time expired to give Clemson a 24–10 halftime lead.

Clemson made it a rout when Wiggins returned an interception 98 yards down the left sideline. The Tigers faked the PAT, with holder Drew Swinney, Coach Dabo Swinney’s son, running it in for two points and a 32–10 lead.

Will Shipley’s 2-yard touchdown run to end an 86-yard drive made it 39–10 late in the third quarter.

NOTES — Maye set the ACC record for single-season passing yards by a freshman with 4,115 yards, surpassing the previous record of 4,057 yards set by Florida State’s Jameis Winston in 2013. His season total is the eighth-highest single-season total of any player in ACC history, regardless of class, and his 4,768 yards of total offense are the fifth-most in a single season. … Downs had 11 receptions for 100 yards and became the third receiver in UNC history with at least 200 career receptions (now 202). He trails only Ryan Switzer (244) and Quinshad Davis (205). … Clemson’s 21 ACC titles are the most in ACC history. Florida State is next with 15. … Tarps covered several sections in the upper deck behind each end zone for the game that drew 64,115 fans. … UNC was without defensive backs Storm Duck (upper-body injury) and Cam’Ron Kelly (lower-body). … Brown fell to 3–9 against Clemson, including 0–2 during his second stint in Chapel Hill. … The Tigers stretched their series lead to 39–19–1.

No. 10 Clemson 39,
No. 24 UNC 10

DateMonth/dayTime/scoreLocationOpponent
(current rank)
TV/
record
August
27SaturdayW, 56–24HomeFlorida A&M1–0
September
3SaturdayW, 63–61BooneAppalachian State2–0
10SaturdayW, 35–28AtlantaGeorgia State 3–0
24SaturdayL, 45–32HomeNo. 19
Notre Dame
3–1
October
1SaturdayW, 41–10HomeVirginia Tech 4–1, 1–0 ACC
8SaturdayW, 27–24Miami
Gardens, Fla.
Miami 5–1, 2–0 ACC
15SaturdayW, 38–35DurhamDuke6–1, 3–0 ACC
29SaturdayW, 42–24HomePittsburgh7–1, 4–0 ACC
November
5SaturdayW, 31–28CharlottesvilleVirginia8–1, 5–0 ACC
12SaturdayW, 36–34Winston-SalemWake Forest 9–1, 6–0 ACC
19SaturdayL, 21–17HomeGeorgia Tech 9–2, 6–1 ACC
25FridayL, 30–27,
2 OTs
HomeNo. 25 N.C. State 9–3, 6–2 ACC
DecemberACC championship
3SaturdayL, 39–10CharlotteNo. 10 Clemson9–4
Holiday Bowl
28WednesdayL, 28–27San DiegoNo. 15 Oregon9–5

Photo courtesy of the ACC

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