It was a tough day to be an optimist about this Carolina team. Believe me, I tried. Sure, Bryn Renner threw an interception on the third play of the game, but the defense held Clemson to field goal. Then UNC scored on a Jheranie Boyd's great catch of an underthrown pass, and even though that lead was eventually lost to back-to-back Clemson touchdown drives, things weren't looking that bad. The Tigers' running game was completely stymied, and Tajh Boyd was having a bit of trouble connecting to Sammy Watkins. All things considered, things were going well.
And then Renner had his second interception, a weak toss Kourtnei Brown tipped and caught in the backfield, racing untouched into the end zone. Still the Heels rallied, with Jheranie Boyd catching a second touchdown pass two plays later. Another stop and UNC could still tie going into the half, until Erik Highsmith fumbled the ball off his own thigh. And even with all of those turnovers, Carolina still went into the half down only seven. They could bounce back from this.
What they couldn't bounce back from was what happened next. After trading punts to start the half, we were treated to a Clemson touchdown, Charles Brown fumbling the ensuing kickoff to set up a second Clemson touchdown, T.J. Thorpe taking a kick return 100 yards for his own touchdown, another Clemson touchdown, yet another Clemson touchdown, and finally a Bryn Renner fumble leading to one more Clemson touchdown.
And that was just the third quarter.
In a fifteen minute period where the UNC defense didn't play all that badly, Clemson scored 35 points while the Heels only managed 26 yards of total offense. It was a complete fiasco, there was only a flaming wreckage of a football game remaining. If you kept watching through the fourth, you saw Renner take the team to the Tigers' three yard line before throwing one more interception on fourth down. He was then pulled in favor of Braden Hanson, a move made not as a result of his play but more because there was no point in risking the starters at that point. Hanson's role was to almost exclusively hand the ball to Ryan Houston; he threw two passes, one incomplete and a second hitting T.J. Thorpe in stride for a fifty-two yard reception. The Heels scored twice, long after the game was no longer in doubt.
So what went wrong? Turnovers were of course a problem, with three fumbles and Renner's multiple interceptions killing the momentum and giving up easy scores. Only two of Clemson's touchdown drives started on their own half f the field, the same number as those scored by the Tiger defense. Giovani Bernard's limited play didn't help either. Hobbled with a hip injury, he didn't start, and though he eventually had 11 carries, they only totaled 44 yards. He seemed a step slow the entire game.
But mainly it was the UNC secondary. The line did a great job of stopping the run, and Carolina ran a lot of interesting blitz packages to keep Tajh Boyd off of his game (sacking him three times), but there were just too many receiving threats and secondary wasn't up to the challenge. Not counting the the fourth quarter series when the game wasn't in doubt and Boyd's own scrambles, Clemson threw 46 times while only attempting 16 rushes, and that air attack was potent. Watkins, the primary focus of UNC's efforts, still had 91 yards and a score. He was bested by teammate Deandre Hopkins, who had nine catches for 157 yards and a score of his own. Three other receivers had touchdown receptions, as Boyd tied a Clemson record for TD throws. UNC would have had to have been on fire offensively to keep up with that, and instead they just self-immolated.
At least the Heels get to return to Chapel Hill after this, and face a Wake Forest team that looked fearsome before barely squeaking past Duke this afternoon. The team will have to forget about this loss quickly though, because it's the type that could crush someone's spirit. It sure did a number on mine.