Clemson is the #1 team in the country.
Before delving into any deep analysis of this game, that is a point that must be factored into the mix. After all, the game is not played in a vacuum and players don't necessarily struggle of their own volition. The other team has something to do with what happens and that was certainly the case Saturday night in UNC's 45-37 loss to Clemson.
Another bad Charlotte outing for Marquise Williams
Much of the attention will fall on the play of Marquise Williams. For the second time this season, Williams came to his hometown and much like last time he struggled to perform as a high enough level to lift the Tar Heels to a win. In September, Williams threw three interceptions, two in the end zone that left the Tar Heels on the wrong end of a 17-13 decision versus South Carolina. Heading into this game, Williams was looking for redemption and it simply didn't come.
For the game Williams completed just 11 of 33 passes. Most of those 22 incompletions were badly off target throws, many of the high variety. Williams consistently overthrew receivers all over the field from deep shots to quick outs. He missed an open Mack Hollins twice on passes that likely would have resulted in touchdowns. Part of Williams' struggles were a result of Clemson's defensive pressure. While UNC had faced highly ranked defenses before, Clemson was a different animal, especially on the defensive line. The Tar Heel offensive line that put four players on the three All-ACC games was overmatched most of the night. Williams was moved around the pocket, generally unsettled and the passes off target more times than not. Even when Williams did have time and a clean pocket, his passing touch was off.
Compounding the accuracy issues, Williams threw another red zone interception. The opening drive of the first half which pushed deep into Clemson territory was undone after a Williams pass to Quinshad Davis was tipped at the line allowing Clemson's Cordrea Tankersley. to get to the ball and intercept the pass. Instead of UNC taking the lead on that drive, Clemson was able to go up by 12 on the ensuring drive and it went downhill from there.
Despite the poor passing numbers, Williams still managed 224 yards and 3 touchdowns. He also ended the game with 305 yards of total offense putting him over 10,000 for his career. However, UNC needed Williams to be at the top of his game and he simply wasn't able to do that.
Defense gets shredded.
If this game felt like much of last season for the defense that's because it was similar. The Tar Heel defense, which had found ways to stop teams from scoring even when giving up yards ran into a team that would not be denied the end zone. The first half wasn't a complete disaster and the Tar Heels managed to get stops but at the same time was slowly being worn down. After halftime, the wheels really came off with Clemson putting up 24 points and doing so with an array of weapons. In the first half Wayne Gallman had been effectively contained with just 17 yards rushing. In the second half that containment disappeared. UNC's run defense, which had struggled all season allowed the Tiger running back to romp for 170 yards after halftime.
Factoring into the porous defense was UNC's offensive struggles. One element of the massive defensive failures last season was the offense too often giving the ball back too quickly without points to show for it. With UNC's tempo or a string of incomplete passes, three and outs that take 30 seconds put immense pressure on the defense to hold the line. UNC's 18 second possession near the end of the first half not only put the defense back on the field too quickly but allowed Clemson to get a touchdown to retake the lead. The dam hadn't broken at that point but it was starting to show some cracks that widened and led to the second half flood.
UNC couldn't quite reach the top but the season is a huge success nonetheless
One consistent aspect of fan behavior is never being satisfied with the status quo. This season has been a three month exercise in Tar Heel partisans constantly elevating the expectation bar. And every time that bar is raised the level of potential disappointment is that much bigger should the Tar Heels fail to reach it. After eleven straight wins, an 8-0 ACC record and Coastal Division crown, there was a real sense the Tar Heels could pull the upset versus the Tigers and win UNC's first ACC title in 35 years.
It didn't happen and with that comes a profound sense of disappointment. That is understandable but it shouldn't overshadow what UNC has done and how far the program has come from a year ago much less five or ten. This is a program that has been struggled to get over the hump in far too many seasons. Golden opportunities were missed, an NCAA scandal led to coaching turnover and penalties. A second scandal has kept a dark cloud over Chapel Hill impacting recruiting. Larry Fedora's ability to get traction with the program has been hamstrung by a litany troubles.
Yet, as of this writing UNC is 11-2 on the season and finishes as the second best team in the ACC. It's been a tough but rewarding journey from the desert of mediocrity to national relevance not seen since 1997. While no one should ever be happy with losing a championship, it is important not to lose sight of everything this team has accomplished in finally making Tar Heel football more than something people do to pass time until basketball season starts.
UNC came up short today but the reactions of the players and Larry Fedora after the game were of a group of people who weren't hanging their head. Shakeel Rashad said there was still work to do in whatever bowl game the Tar Heels go to and with that the opportunity to become the first UNC team ever to win 12 games. Saturday night's loss to Clemson cannot erase how far this team has come nor take away from the increasing momentum the program has finally grabbed after years of standing still.