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Tar Heel Hangover: The greatest loss ever

The Tar Heels proved more with the loss Saturday than with any win for the past three years.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 28 Clemson at North Carolina

Welcome to the Tar Heel Hangover. This is our opportunity to review last week’s game, second-guess all of the key moments, and set the game plan for the week ahead.

The Elevator Speech: What happened last week.

The Heels were more than ready for top-ranked Clemson. Nearly pulling one of the great upsets in college football this decade and what would have possibly been the greatest football victory ever for Carolina, the players put forth an effort for the ages. They may have come up just short, but it was best loss imaginable.

Water Cooler Discussion: If I were the coach . . .

After the game, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney was effusive in his praise for the Tar Heel effort, noting that the Heels outplayed and outcoached Clemson. He was right. That was a tremendous game across the board.

The defense deserves a ton of credit. Clemson managed only 330 yards of offense, which is nearly 150 below their season average. Clemson’s 21 points was their lowest output of the season and keep in mind that they have already played then-12th ranked Texas A&M. They scored 41 at Syracuse. Time and again the Heels were quick to the ball, forcing short plays and making open field tackles.

The offense also did its job. 7-17 on third down was a big improvement over the first four weeks. No turnovers was key to continually forcing the Tigers into long fields. The rushing game put up nearly 150 yards, which took some pressure off of Sam Howell and allowed the freshman to carefully choose his throws. The offensive line was very impressive giving up only 3 sacks while maintaining a push up front to generate running lanes. A total of nearly 32 minutes of possession was key to shortening the game.

Without doing a comprehensive search, I believe this was quite possibly the best loss in memory. Of course there is disappointment that the outcome wasn’t different, but the Heels showed the nation on Saturday that they are a force to be reckoned with. This loss is a major step in the right direction.

A regular part of this article is to second-guess the key moments. That moment on Saturday came with 1:17 remaining. Locked in a 14-14 stalemate, Carolina generated momentum to start the fourth quarter with a 7 play drive. A gutsy call to go for it on fourth and 1 from the Clemson 45 was unsuccessful and 6 plays later, the Tigers struck on a long pass for a touchdown. 21-14 Clemson. The Tar Heel offense had struggled to move the ball and the clock was starting to look like an enemy.

Then the drive started. 16 plays. 75 yards. Nearly 9 minutes of game time. Two fourth down conversions. It was a powerful and unstoppable march that culminated in a Javonte Williams’ touchdown.

Mack Brown did not hesitate to signal for a two point attempt. Even after a timeout, the Heels brought the offense out to try and take the lead. Incredible call in a pressure situation.

I was against it. “Kick the PAT!” I messaged my colleagues. Take the point and tie the game.

The Carolina defense had been stellar all game. The only Clemson drive of note in the second half started on a short field following the failed fourth down play. Plus, the defense was rested. Carolina’s final offensive drive took nearly 9 minutes so the defense would have been very fresh. Additionally, even if the two-point conversion was good, the defense would still need to come on to the field for over a minute and Clemson would still just have needed a field goal to win. With a timeout in their pocket, getting the ball back after a couple of incomplete passes was not even out of the realm of possibility.

Throughout the game, I kept checking the clock. Ahead after 1 quarter. Tied at the half. Tied after three quarters against Clemson. The longer the team had a chance to win, the better the situation appeared. I would have agreed with going for two if there was not enough time left for Clemson to mount a drive. With that much time left, however, the benefit was outweighed by the risk.

Still, I love that they tried.

Key stat for the week.

Carolina has been in a ton of close games this year, and that may have cost them against Clemson. Clemson Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables knew to watch for the speed option on the critical two point conversion. He knew because Carolina had run the play before. That option was the two point conversion against South Carolina late in the fourth quarter to make the game 20-17.

Close games can build character and prepare teams for the focus needed to win. They can also, however, provide a playbook for what happens in the crucial final moments. The Clemson defense was certainly tired, but they knew what was coming.

Looking Forward: A quick peek ahead.

The schedule gets much easier with a trip to Georgia Tech on Saturday. The Heels have played well over the last few weeks, but now must get some wins to advance toward bowl eligibility. They are the best two-win team in the country, but that won’t be a very good story line after week 6. The Yellow Jackets have an anemic offensive averaging less than 300 yards and only 13.5 points per game. This should be a return to the winning ways that started the season.

Final Thoughts

A great game on Saturday and absolutely nothing for the team to hang their heads about. Very well done. Go Heels!