The North Carolina Tar Heels’ streak of gut wrenching finishes reached three this evening and this was the most painful of the lot. An inspired performance by a shorthanded defense and yet another 4th Quarter flurry by the UNC offense came up just inches short against the defending national champions.
From the very beginning, it was clear that this Tar Heel team intended to seize the moment. A fabulous opening drive ended with a Sam Howell to Dyami Brown touchdown that ignited the sellout crowd. Howell started hot but cooled as the game went on, before leading a 4th quarter touchdown drive that ended with a failed two-point conversion. He finished with 2 touchdowns and 144 yards on 15-27 passing.
The Heels defense stood on its head all night, keeping all-world superstar Trevor Lawrence and the vaunted Tiger offense from ever truly getting in sync. Lawrence was held to just 206 yards passing on 18-30, though he hurt the Tar Heels often with his legs. His favored target Tee Higgins had a big night (six catches for 129 yards and a touchdown), but the rest of the Clemson receiving corps was largely bottled up.
UNC’s defense had heroes all over the field tonight, but chief among them was Chazz Surratt, who had the game of his life. He defended passes, he had several tackles for loss, he came up with a big sack. With the exception of the Higgins touchdown on which he was isolated and burned (a horrible matchup for any linebacker), he didn’t put a foot wrong all game long. Jeremiah Gemmel, who was ejected in the first half last week against Appalachian State, had a terrific bounceback game as well. On the line, Aaron Crawford was sensational and Allen Cater made several big plays at outside linebacker. There truly aren’t enough superlatives to describe the heart showed by UNC’s valiant defenders, who kept their team in the game the whole way.
Besides Howell, Javonte Williams and Michael Carter each had strong games on offense, Carter (16 carries, 99 yards) making the bulk of the impact through three quarters, before Javonte (10 carries, 46 yards) took over in the 4th, breaking several big time runs through Clemson defenders and ultimately scoring the final touchdown. Dyami Brown had several drops in key situations, but he had the opening score and had a big reception on the final drive, while Jake Bargas had his first catch as a Tar Heel to put the Heel inches away from the goal line.
Much will be made of the decision to go for two at the end there, but it would be a mistake to be anything other than proud of what we saw from Carolina’s young men in pads. The Kenan environment was raucous throughout (case in point, a usually disciplined Clemson committed six false start penalties), the team put forward its best and most consistent game of the season thus far, and they looked like they belonged on the field against one of college football’s behemoths. Win or lose, this team is on the right path, and this was a big step forward.