By T. Nolan Hayes
For the second week in a row, the North Carolina defense succeeded in stopping its opponent's primary strength on offense.
But for the second week in a row, that result came at a high price.
The Tar Heels held Clemson's vaunted rushing game in check Saturday but were spread thin against the pass in the process.
Wide receiver Rod Gardner made them pay for it. Gardner caught seven passes for a school-record 182 yards and three touchdowns as the Tigers rallied to defeat UNC 38-24 at Kenan Stadium.
"I can't say enough about Rod's performance," said Clemson quarterback Willie Simmons, who threw all three scoring passes to Gardner. "He stepped up like a big-time player would. Without his play tonight, I don't know what the outcome would have been."
Gardner took advantage of the fact that UNC was dead set on stopping Clemson's rushing attack, which entered the game ranked fifth in the nation (296.0 yards per game). The Tar Heels stacked the line of scrimmage, leaving their defensive backs one-on-one with Clemson's receivers.
The key matchup was Gardner against Errol Hood, UNC's best cornerback.
Hood shadowed N.C. State's Koren Robinson all over the field last week and helped end Robinson's six-game streak of 100-yard receiving games. He had deep help from safety DeFonte Coleman on many of his snaps against the Wolfpack, but he was also able to contain Robinson in man-to-man situations.
Hood had no such success - or help - against Gardner. Gardner beat him on all three of his touchdown plays, catching scoring passes of 20, 43 and 25 yards.
"We put a lot of people in the box to try to stop the run - that's their bread and butter, averaging 300 (yards) a game," UNC defensive tackle Ryan Sims said. "We stopped that, but we also left our cornerbacks on an island with a great receiver."
And while the Clemson ground game sputtered to 112 yards on 45 attempts, Gardner was ready.
"(Hood) was going to have to play physical with me the whole game," said Gardner, who burned UNC for seven catches, 127 yards and a touchdown last year. "He tried - they put him to the test - but I got the job done. I made big plays out there."
All three touchdown passes came on lobs over the top. Two of the scoring passes from Simmons were not great, but they were good enough because Hood and Gardner were in total isolation.
On his first and third touchdowns, Gardner had to come back for the football because it was thrown short. Gardner's size (6-foot-4, 215 pounds) and leaping ability gave him a physical advantage against the 5-11, 195-pound Hood on those plays.
"I was with him - it wasn't like he blew past me and caught the ball," Hood said. "I was with him every step. Sometimes, I just didn't turn my head quick enough like I normally do, and he did. When I went up to get it, it was like he was already there. His height helped a lot."
Gardner got behind Hood and Coleman for his second score, a 43-yard bomb that gave Clemson its first lead at 24-17. The play was symbolic of Gardner's season: He finally managed to break away from the defense.
Gardner entered the season as one of the nation's most highly touted receivers, but his production early on failed to match the hype. He averaged just 56 yards receiving in his first five games of the year.
But starting with Clemson's 34-27 victory against N.C. State on Oct. 7, when he had 10 catches for 137 yards, Gardner began to come alive. He smoked Maryland for 148 yards on five catches the next week, leading up to his date with the Tar Heels.
"At the beginning of the year, a lot of teams weren't allowing me to get the deep ball - they always had a player over the top," Gardner said. "I was just waiting for the games when people wanted to play me man-to-man so I could do what I do.
"We set it up this game, and I got the job done."
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