CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Dabo Swinney was livid. He jumped, grimaced and berated his punter on the sideline after a fake punt failed miserably in the second quarter of the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game at Bank of America Stadium on Saturday night. Swinney’s Clemson Tigers, ranked No. 1 and favored to advance to the four-team College Football Playoff, were suddenly imploding against No. 8 North Carolina.
Yes, they seemed to be Clemsoning — that term for failing spectacularly in a game that the Tigers are favored to win.
But this is not the same Clemson team that used to fall short in big games. Not this year. Not with Deshaun Watson, a Heisman Trophy contender, at quarterback.
The Tigers steadied themselves behind Watson and held off a feisty North Carolina team that had won 11 games in a row and was bidding for its first A.C.C. championship since Lawrence Taylor was a linebacker for the Tar Heels in 1980.
With a 45-37 victory in front of a mostly orange-clad sellout crowd that gave the Tigers an advantage even though the game was played in the Tar Heels’ state, Clemson (13-0) did what it was supposed to do. Clemson, the only remaining undefeated team in the Football Bowl Subdivision, is expected to be the No. 1 seed when the Playoff field is announced Sunday.
“All you dadgum media people wanting me to get fired up about a poll six weeks ago,” Swinney said as he celebrated on the field after the game, “now’s the time to get fired up about a poll — tomorrow, Dec. 6, and I can’t wait to be there to be a part of it. Probably won’t sleep between now and then. We’re going to find out where we’re going and who we’re going to play.”
Watson threw for 289 yards and three touchdowns and ran for 131 yards and another two scores. He directed a critical drive in the final two minutes of the first half to give Clemson a 21-16 lead. It was the first of three consecutive scoring drives for the Tigers as they built a 35-16 advantage in the third quarter. Watson was named the most valuable player of the game.
“He’s the best player in the country,” Swinney said. “And there’s no doubt about it. This guy beats you not just with his legs; he beats you with his arm, his mind, his heart, his guts, his toughness. This is a great, great champion of a player.
“That No. 4, man, he’s like Secretariat. You cut him open, he’s got an oversized heart. He’s special.”
Special enough to win the Heisman?
“I’m going to say I’m the Heisman winner,” Watson said after the game. “We’ll just see what happens.”
Watson was not the only player who gave North Carolina problems. Clemson’s Wayne Gallman rushed for 187 yards, including 170 in the second half, and a touchdown. He also caught four passes for 68 yards and a score.
Marquise Williams threw for 224 yards and three touchdowns to lead North Carolina, which made a late run to leave the finish in doubt until the final minute. Williams’s 1-yard touchdown run with 1 minute 39 seconds left in the third quarter closed the gap to 35-23. Clemson answered with Watson’s 2-yard run 26 seconds into the fourth to make it 42-23. Elijah Hood ran for a 2-yard touchdown for North Carolina with 9:54 left to close the gap again, to 42-30.
Clemson kicked a late field goal to take a 45-30 lead, but North Carolina was not done. The Tar Heels made it 45-37 with 1:13 remaining on a 17-yard touchdown pass from Williams to Ryan Switzer. Then the Tar Heels appeared to recover an onside kick but were penalized for being offside on the play. Clemson recovered the ensuing kick.
“I had a chance to look at it, and they missed it,” North Carolina Coach Larry Fedora said of the officials, referring to the offside call. “They were wrong. They were wrong.”
North Carolina had hoped that a victory would put it into the Playoff, and Fedora, given a seven-year contract extension through 2022 that was announced before Saturday’s game, had openly lobbied for that consideration. But the Tar Heels first had to stop Watson and Gallman. At critical moments in the game, they could not.
Watson orchestrated a key two-minute drive that was capped by a 1-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Leggett with two seconds left in the first half, giving Clemson a 21-16 lead. Then, after a promising Tar Heels drive to start the second half ended with an interception, Watson led the Tigers on a 97-yard drive to extend their lead to 28-16.
A 35-yard touchdown pass from Watson to Artavis Scott on the next drive, after a failed fake punt by the Tar Heels, gave Clemson a seemingly comfortable 35-16 lead before North Carolina’s late comeback.
But the Tar Heels nearly had Clemson in trouble a lot earlier than that. Clemson was holding a 14-9 lead when punter Andy Teasdall decided to run the ball on a fourth-and-15 from the Tigers’ 30-yard line. He made it 4 yards, giving the Tar Heels the ball on Clemson’s 34, and North Carolina scored on the ensuing drive to take a 16-14 lead.
“There was no fake punt,” Swinney said. “That was Teasdall kind of losing his mind, like went crazy on me. I don’t have an answer for it.”
That was not the only baffling moment for the Tigers. There was an inexplicable series of three false starts on one drive in the second quarter. And there were four personal fouls and one player ejected in the opening half for Clemson.
But just when it looked as if Clemson might self-destruct in that pivotal second quarter, the Tigers drove for the go-ahead touchdown as Watson proved once again why he was in the mix for a Heisman Trophy.
And why Clemson has a chance to win its first national championship since the 1981 season.