By Bret Strelow
Assistant Sports Editor
Clemson had every reason to worry.
Star quarterback and Heisman hopeful Woodrow Dantzler was limping to the sidelines with a bruised left foot. The fifth-ranked Tigers were already facing a 17-point deficit on the road against a team with abundant confidence and a crowd with newfound enthusiasm.
But Willie Simmons crushed North Carolina's hopes. He put a hush over Kenan Stadium. And he kept Clemson's national-title aspirations alive.
Simmons relieved Dantzler in the second quarter and tossed four touchdown passes to lead Clemson to a 38-24 victory against UNC on Saturday.
"When you experience adversity like we did - we were down 17-0 and lost our quarterback - and find a way to win at the end, it's just the sign of a true champion," Clemson linebacker Keith Adams said.
The Tigers (8-0, 6-0 in the ACC) have Simmons to thank for overcoming that adversity. He entered the game with less than seven minutes remaining before halftime after Dantzler was injured on a 24-yard scramble.
Simmons, a redshirt freshman, didn't waste any time making an impact. He connected with Jackie Robinson for a 29-yard touchdown pass on the fourth play after Dantzler was hurt. Simmons would connect with Rod Gardner for three more scoring strikes by game's end, including a 43-yard hook-up with 5:25 left in the third quarter that gave Clemson its first lead at 24-17.
Simmons completed 10-of-18 passes for 228 yards, and he became the second back-up quarterback to lead Clemson to a win against UNC (3-4, 1-4) in the last two years.
"I know North Carolina is tired of second-team quarterbacks coming in to win the game," Simmons told Dantzler on the sidelines in the fourth quarter.
Dantzler was the hero last season. He replaced Brandon Streeter in the first quarter, rushed for 82 yards and led the Tigers to a 31-20 win.
Simmons took his turn Saturday and did his damage through the air against a defense that limited Clemson to 112 rushing yards on 45 attempts.
The Tar Heels were able to jump out to an early lead in large part because of their emphasis on stopping the run. Before Dantzler's 24-yard dash, he had been held to minus-2 yards on seven carries, including three sacks.
Clemson went three-and-out on its first two possessions and had mustered one first down by the time UNC led 17-0.
Kicker Jeff Reed put the Tar Heels on the board with a 26-yard field goal on their second possession. Tailback Brandon Russell capped off an 81-yard drive on UNC's next possession with a 2-yard leap into the end zone.
One possession later, UNC's Ronald Curry scored on a quarterback draw from 6 yards out with 12:18 left in the second quarter. UNC owned a 234-48 advantage in total yards and had run 18 more plays than the Tigers. The numbers were telling, but they weren't final.
"I knew at 17-0 the game was far from being over with because there was a lot of playing time left," UNC coach Carl Torbush said. "As explosive as Clemson has been on offense, that 17 points could be taken away in a heartbeat."
Torbush was right, but UNC's offense had a hand in helping Clemson swing momentum in its favor as the first half wound down. Tar Heel wideout Bosley Allen couldn't haul in a long pass from Curry on a third-and-30. Curry picked up a first down on a third-down option play but fumbled the ball, which Russell recovered short of the first-down marker.
Clemson entered the locker room facing just a three-point deficit, and the Tigers continued to build on their momentum early in the second half. Clemson ran three plays and punted from its own 10, but the Tigers regained possession at the UNC 30 after officials ruled Allen had touched the ball before he let it roll dead. Clemson recovered and tied the game eight plays later.
"I didn't touch the ball," Allen said. "If I would have, I would have dived on it. I just wouldn't have walked off like that."
The Tar Heels were worried they had bigger problems. Curry got hit on the next-to-last play before halftime and thought he had suffered a season-ending knee injury.
Curry only strained his right knee and returned for UNC's second possession of the second half. He completed 8-of-16 passes for 113 yards and was picked off twice after the break.
The first interception doused UNC's fourth-quarter comeback attempt. After forcing a Clemson punt, the Tar Heels took possession at their own 21 trailing 31-24 with 3:39 to play. But Curry was picked off by Adams on UNC's first play.
"When we were up 17, we felt like we had a good rhythm on offense," Curry said. "We just didn't continue doing what we were doing."
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