Led by its dazzling sophomore quarterback and fueled by a stadium that felt more like Death Valley than Charlotte, No. 1 Clemson defeated North Carolina, 45-37, Saturday night for the 2015 ACC football championship.
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson threw for three touchdowns and ran for two more in front of a sellout Bank of America crowd of 74,514, at least 60,000 of whom wore Clemson orange. Backed by a better supporting cast, Watson outplayed UNC senior quarterback Marquise Williams in the most highly anticipated college football game ever played in Charlotte.
Fedora had predicted Williams would have the “game of his life” against Clemson. Instead, Williams sailed at least a half-dozen passes over the heads of his intended receivers, threw a red-zone interception and lost a fumble on a night where the Tar Heels would have had to do almost everything perfectly to win.
The Tar Heels also were undone by a controversial call late in the game. UNC had an onside kick recovery negated on an offside call that TV replays showed did not occur with 1:13 to go. A UNC recovery could have meant a chance to tie the game.
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Williams also had many fine moments, throwing for three TDs and running for another as the Tar Heels stayed in the game all night. But ultimately it wasn’t enough as the Tigers broke open a close game in the third quarter and then held off UNC’s rallying the highest-scoring ACC title game ever.
Clemson (13-0) will move on to a national college football playoff semifinal Dec. 31, with the pairings announced Sunday. UNC (11-2) still goes to a bowl game, but its chance to win its first ACC football title since 1980 was dashed for several reasons. The biggest, by far, was Watson.
Clemson had touchdown drives of 97 and 96 yards during the game as the Tar Heels defense – so improved from a year ago – wore down in the face of Watson’s assault.
Watson had the most rushing yards by a quarterback in ACC title game history (131) and had 420 total yards to go along with his five touchdowns.
Under Watson’s leadership, the Tigers scored TDs on three straight possessions straddling the end of the second and beginning of the third quarters. The player Cam Newton has proclaimed has earned his vote for the Heisman Trophy looked every bit of that Saturday night.
Williams, meanwhile, was under constant pressure as Clemson’s defensive line frequently overwhelmed the UNC blockers. When he did have time, the passes often were incomplete anyway. Trying so hard to play a great game in his hometown, Williams instead played unevenly and was not helped by receivers who too often failed to get much separation.
Clemson also showed a lot of flaws in the victory. In one cringe-worthy sequence in the second quarter, the Tigers managed to false-start three times on the same drive.
Then punter Andy Teasdall – on a fourth-and-15 from his own 30 with his team leading 14-9 – decided he could run the ball for a first down on a fake punt. Teasdall was tackled more than 10 yards short of the first down. Certainly, that was a bad mistake.
But what Clemson coach Dabo Swinney did after that, in my mind, was even worse. Swinney screamed at Teasdall after he came off the field. Then he screamed at him some more. And then he went to find Teasdall on the bench and scream at him even more. It went on and on.
Geez, it was only a fake punt! Teasdall didn’t accidentally launch a nuclear missile.
Swinney lost his cool, though, and for awhile Clemson did as well. UNC converted Teasdall’s mistake into a touchdown a few plays later to take a 16-14 lead.
But Clemson and Watson settled down, with Watson making a beautiful play for a one-yard touchdown pass just before the half that pushed Clemson to a 21-16 halftime lead.
UNC had a great chance to go ahead again on its first drive of the second half. UNC would have had a touchdown if Williams didn’t throw it behind his receiver in one-on-one coverage just short of the end zone.
But Williams did, and the result was a red-zone interception – an unpleasant reminder for Tar Heels fans of Williams’ nasty night against South Carolina in the season opener in Charlotte.
UNC saw its ACC championship game hopes slowly fade away after that. Clemson scored quickly. Then it was UNC’s turn to run a horrible-looking fake punt that failed. Clemson quickly scored again and suddenly it was 35-16, Tigers, midway through the third quarter.
UNC tried to get back in it and almost did, with the ball in Clemson territory halfway through the fourth quarter and down by 12 points. Williams lost a fumble then.
And six minutes later came the controversial call on the onside kick. A re-do ended with a Clemson recovery and Watson, fittingly, running for the first down that clinched it.
Scott Fowler: email@example.com; @Scott_Fowler