For the first 28 minutes on Saturday night, UNC nursed a lead against the #1 team in the country and kept the ever-so-faint glimmer of a berth in college football's final four. Then UNC had its two biggest derps of the game, an 18-second 3-and-out and a turnover at the Clemson 3-yard line, both of which resulted in Tiger touchdowns and irrevocably flipped the game out of Carolina's hands.
The Tar Heels kept fighting and just when it seemed Clemson would cruise to the ACC championship, UNC made a run to cut it to one score and had two legitimate shots at recovering an onside kick that would have given Carolina a chance to possibly tie the game. In the end, the Tigers were bigger, faster, stronger, and better than the Heels, and deserved to win the game. It was going to require a Herculean effort and a very clean game to challenge Clemson, and while the effort was there, it was far from a clean game. And yet, with one more break, who knows. UNC acquitted themselves as a top-10 team and played the top-ranked Tigers to a one-score game. That is just about as much as anyone could ask for.
With that in mind, here is the ACC Championship edition of the GBU Report:
Good Quise: Though we didn't see as much of him as we would like, when Marquise Williams was good, he did some good things. Williams threw for 224 yards and three touchdowns, and was the Tar Heels leading rusher with 81 yards and another score. Williams now has 10,099 career yards and is the fifth ACC player to ever gain more than 10,000 yards.
Shakeel Rashad and M.J. Stewart: Led UNC with 12 tackles each. The Carolina defense will miss Rashad's leadership but sophomores like Stewart and Nazair Jones (who came up with the only Tiger turnover of the game) should help shore up that unit moving forward.
Nick Weiler: As noted before, Weiler has quietly put together the highest-scoring season ever by a UNC kicker. With 4 extra points and a field goal, Weiler is now second on UNC's all-time scoring list. He trails the legendary Don McCauley by only 7 points for the school career record and may get it if the bowl game turns into a shootout.
Joey Mangili: His ill-fated fake punt aside, when Mangili actually punted the ball, he did well. Mangili booted a 50-yarder and put two inside the 20. Given UNC's punting foibles early in the year, it is nice to have that buttoned up.
Special teams: A lot of credit goes to UNC's special teams, especially on the two onside kicks at the end of the game. UNC recovered the first one before the phantom offside call, and had two or three good shots at the recovery on the second one.
Bad Quise: Given how uncomfortable Marquise Williams looked most of the night, you could be forgiven for not realizing he did account for over 300 yards of total offense. He spent much of the night running for his life and when he wasn't he was as likely to air-mail a pass as throw it well. There were also the two turnovers, including the soul-crushing red-zone interception. Clemson's defense is responsible for so much of that, but it has been at least 3 weeks since we have truly seen Good Quise for much of the game.
Team defense: Of course, Clemson was by far the best team UNC faced all season, and the defense surrendered season-highs in points (45) and yardage (608). These are 2014-type numbers for the defense, which had made its name by not being last year's defense. The Heels only had two tackles for loss on 98 snaps (98 snaps!!!) and zero sacks. Carolina was also only able to force one turnover after the Tigers had been coughing the ball up quite a bit of late.
Third down defense: A resident of this section for weeks, UNC's inability to get off the field on 3rd down came into play early and often against Clemson. The Tigers were 9-18 on 3rd down and also converted a 4th down for a 56% effective conversion rate. Clemson is good enough that UNC didn't need to help them out by not getting off the field less than 45% of the time it had the chance.
Offensive line play: If this was family court, Williams and Elijah Hood should sue the O-line for non-support. Although the line only gave up two sacks, Williams was hurried eight times. The line also gave up four tackles for loss, and the Williams fumble happened when Bentley Spain was badly beaten on the blind side. There were also the two false start flags. UNC's O-line had been a strength but had struggled of late and were beaten badly most of the night.
ACC officiating: Unless you have been living under a rock, you are aware of the phantom offside call against UNC on the onside kick that the Heels recovered.
No question no offside flag should have been thrown. pic.twitter.com/JjlmqNxown— Lee Pace (@LeePaceTweet) December 6, 2015
Let's be clear: the blown call did not cost UNC the game, nor is there any guarantee UNC could have scored and made a two-point conversion. And while ABCer Twitter tried all sorts of ways to show the call might have actually been correct, the ACC said the official saw a UNC player cross the plane of the 35-yard line, which clearly did not happen. But between this in the last minute and the blown Duke-Miami call that gave the Hurricanes a win, those are two HUGE game-altering calls on a national stage, and ACC officiating has become a national punch line. And as for Carolina this season alone, they have been on the wrong side of the chain-link first down, the invalid fair catch signal, and now the offside-onside. The league has to do something to address both perception and reality with its officials.
As disappointing as the result of the game was for UNC and its fans, this was one heck of a season. From the ashes of the opening loss to South Carolina came an 11-game winning streak, a perfect 8-0 in the Coastal Division, beat downs of Duke and Miami, satisfying road wins over Pitt and NC State, nine wins over Power 5 opponents, and school records falling left and right. Carolina will head to Orlando to face Baylor in a game that could challenge the scoreboard operator's ability to keep up and, by the way, set a school record for wins in the process. It's been a fun ride, Saturday night notwithstanding.