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The Daily Tar Heel

What, exactly, would it take for a UNC win over No. 1 Clemson?

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UNC quarterback Sam Howell (7), prepares to pass the ball on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019 in a game against Miami in Kenan Memorial Stadium. UNC beat Miami 28-25.

The word "miracle" gets thrown around a lot these days.

If a minor technological development isn't billed as a miracle, you don't think twice when scrolling on Twitter. Acne treatments are referred to as "miraculous." Overzealous spiritual types will corner you at a dinner party and tell you all about their own person "miracle," which may or may not include turning off their phone for a few days and "reconnecting with nature."

If the North Carolina football team finds a way to topple No. 1 Clemson on Saturday, the use of "miracle" would be justified. Here's exactly what a Tar Heel upset would look like, and what UNC will have to do to earn the biggest win in program history.

UNC stymies Clemson run game

Despite the (deserved) hype around phenom quarterback Trevor Lawrence, Clemson's offensive attack starts on the ground. Through three games, the Tigers have averaged 247 rushing yards per contest, helping them cruise to wins over UNC-Charlotte, Syracuse and a ranked Texas A&M team. 

They're led by junior running back Travis Etienne, who has tallied 395 yards and four touchdowns this season. Sophomore Lyn-J Dixon is right behind him with 220 yards on 33 touches, good for 6.7 yards per carry and three scores.

The Tar Heels, meanwhile, have allowed 172.5 rushing yards per game, and none of their four opponents thus far have near the amount of firepower of Clemson. If Clemson comes out of the gate getting an easy five, six, seven yards every time Lawrence hands the ball off, the game could be over before it really even starts.

Offensive line grows up fast

If senior left tackle Charlie Heck, who is questionable for Saturday's game, is unavailable, UNC will trot out five underclassmen — two first-years and three sophomores —  to battle the Clemson front line. That's a bad sign for an offensive line that has given up 16 sacks already this season, and a run game that has petered off since the loss of center Nick Polino against Miami.

Conversely, the Tigers are sixth in the country with 16 sacks of their own, with head coach Dabo Swinney enjoying a seemingly endless supply of NFL-ready linemen to feast on opposing quarterbacks.

Of all the challenges Clemson poses, this may be the toughest one for the Tar Heels to overcome. There's only so much scheming a coaching staff can do to minimize an unavoidable talent gap, and UNC will need to give its quarterback time to keep the Tigers off-balance with the occasional deep ball. Speaking of...

Howell continues to outplay Lawrence

Time for a Pepsi Challenge, quarterback style:

Player A this season: 106 pass attempts, 925 yards, 7 touchdowns, 5 interceptions

Player B: 117 pass attempts, 1024 yards, 9 touchdowns, 2 interceptions

Would it surprise you to know that Player A is Lawrence, while Player B is UNC first-year Sam Howell? 

After a blistering 2018 in which Lawrence put up 30 touchdowns and more than 3,000 passing yards, he has looked mortal so far in 2019, already having thrown more picks this year than the four he threw last season. Meanwhile, Howell has the edge in passer rating, completion percentage and yards per attempt, all against tougher competition (UNC has played the fifth-hardest schedule in the country so far) and with presumably weaker weapons.

Howell may not be the better NFL prospect; he may not be the better quarterback right now, either. Through four games this season, though, he's done more to help his team. He'll need to outplay Lawrence and then some for the Tar Heels to have a chance.

UNC replicates fourth-quarter magic

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Add all that up, and you have a recipe for ... not yet a win, exactly, but maybe an interesting finish. For North Carolina to seal the deal, the team will have to not only continue its streak of down-to-the-wire finishes but actually turn its would-be heroics into a victory.

That only happened in the first two games of the Tar Heels' season, which featured come-from-behind wins over South Carolina and Miami. After that, a pair of late rallies against Wake Forest and Appalachian State fell short. 

At this point, the Tar Heels are well-versed in the art of late-game dramatics. The hardest part could be not a last-second, game-winning touchdown drive from Howell, but a near-perfect first three quarters and change to put UNC in a real position to upset the No. 1 team in the nation.

Now that would be a miracle.


@DTHSports |