It goes without saying that Carolina’s history with Clemson is a really frustrating one. The Heels currently have a 19-39-1 record against the Tigers, and are currently on a five-game losing streak. That doesn't inspire a lot of confidence going into this weekend’s game against Death Valley, but hey, they’re playing a totally different team, right? One that got embarrassed by Duke, lost a tough game to Florida State, and were delivered L’s by Miami and NC State in back-to-back games? Surely that’s enough to give the Heels a chance to win.
If only it were that easy.
Dabo Swinney has found a way to get more out of his team, and now Clemson is on a two-game win streak that includes a big win against Notre Dame. Even worse is that the Heels’ defense has struggled mightily against their four most recent ACC opponents. It’s true that the Tigers will be facing one of the best quarterbacks they’ve faced all season, but the neutralizer could be the Heels getting torched by Cade Klubnik. Again.
There’s a number of layers to this weekend’s matchup, but of course we have to be on-brand with this particular article. So, let’s discuss three keys to this weekend’s game.
Letting Omarion Hampton cook
While Clemson’s run defense is ranked 19th in the country, they have yet to face a team that can pound the rock as well as the Tar Heels. Ranked 18th in the country in run offense, the Heels have been able to deploy Omarion Hampton, British Brooks, and at times Drake Maye, at will whenever they need to pick up chunks of yardage. Hampton has been the biggest difference-maker in the ground game, and it’s hard to imagine that he will have too difficult of a time against the Tigers.
Chip Lindsey’s job this weekend is making sure that he doesn’t stray away from the ground game against Clemson. Nothing has gone well this season when Drake Maye is throwing his arm off, mostly because it makes it really easy for defenses to figure out what’s their plan is. The Heels will need to run Hampton as much as possible to keep RPO and play action plays on the table. Should they do that, I have a feeling Hampton will have a big day, but it will require a firm dedication to the run game to make that happen.
Klubnik vs. Maye
Much like the ACC championship game last season, a big part of how this game will turn out depends on what the quarterbacks on both teams will be able to do against their opposing defenses. From Drake Maye’s perspective, he will be facing the toughest defense he has faced all season. From Cade Klubnik’s perspective, his job is to keep the momentum going from the win over Georgia Tech by punishing a suspect UNC defense.
On paper, Drake Maye is the much better quarterback between the two, but he also will be going up against the most adversity. The good news is that the Heels’ high-powered offense could be too much for the Tigers to contain, but also the question we’re all thinking remains: do the Heels really want another game where both teams score 40+ points and it comes down to just a couple of plays? It’s hard to imagine that the Heels would come out on top in that situation, especially given the fact that they had to dig so deep to take down Duke. Maye is the better quarterback on paper, but Klubnik will likely have a field day torturing UNC until they leave Death Valley with a loss. Which brings us to our final key of the game.
The defense has to find a way to get enough stops
When historians dig through the black box that is the 2023 Carolina football season, what they are going to find is that the Heels’ defense was the difference between making the College Football Playoffs and not even making the ACC championship game. Does that sound a little harsh? Perhaps, but so is allowing two-win Virginia and .500 Georgia Tech score a combined 77 points. To make matters worse, the Heels allowed Duke to score 22 of their 45 points in the fourth quarter alone, which led to the offense needing to score 47 points just to win the game. It’s not a sustainable game plan, and Gene Chizik has to find a way to fix it.
The big thing that Chizik needs to fix is getting stops in the fourth quarter. This season, the Heels have been outscored 65-36 and outgained 896 yards to 580. It’s a disturbing stat, and perhaps the worst part of it is Mack Brown’s theory as to why it is happening.
“I have to think it’s a little bit of fatigue,” Brown said during Monday’s press conference. “(Duke) had the ball a lot more than we did time of possession, but we had more plays. And Georgia Tech, we dominated the third quarter offensively. We were only out there two series (on defense), and then looked really tired the fourth quarter. So I don’t know. We’re struggling with it a little bit to try to figure it out.”
Whether or not you agree with Brown’s theory — which in my opinion is a really bad excuse for a number of reasons — one thing is for certain: the Tar Heels will not beat the Tigers giving up a bunch of points in the fourth quarter. If Brown needs to rotate guys in and out more, then fine. If they need to blitz more? Do it. If it’s more of a scheme issue, then come with a better game plan. Gene Chizik should coach this weekend like his job depends on it, because if we’re being honest with ourselves, it probably does.