CHARLOTTE, N.C. — With his team trailing by two scores midway through the third quarter, Drake Maye cooked up a final opportunity to work his magic.
As several Clemson defenders raced their way into the backfield — a common theme in Friday’s ACC Championship Game — the redshirt first-year quarterback scrambled right and looked to find sophomore tight end John Copenhaver on the edge of the end zone. But once the ill-advised attempt softly fell into the hands of Clemson defensive back Nate Wiggins, who returned the interception 98 yards for a Tigers score, the only thing Maye could spot as he laid on the turf was the Tar Heels’ chance to win the conference title immediately slipping away.
"I probably should have thrown it out of the back of the end zone, but I tried to make a play and it ended up costing us," Maye said.
The pick-six marked a potential 15-point swing in UNC’s eventual 39-10 loss, but the Tar Heels’ inability to score in timely situations was a recurring theme for most of the night. Although the team reached the red zone five times, North Carolina could only cash in twice.
Shortly after Clemson gained momentum by inserting backup quarterback Cade Klubnik, the Tar Heels gave the Tigers a gift when a mishandled exchange caused a fumble that gave the team prime field position deep in North Carolina territory.
Following a Clemson score that put the team ahead, UNC looked ready to answer the call. Despite facing as many as seven pass rushers at times, Maye stood in the pocket and helped the team move the chains in crucial third-down situations.
Yet, after a key pass breakup by Wiggins on third and goal, the Tar Heels were forced to settle for a field goal. While three points would have marked an uninspiring result for a team that seemed to move the ball efficiently, the end output was zero when Wiggins raced past the edge to block Noah Burnette’s attempt and stall any kind of North Carolina production.
"We knew this wasn't going to be easy," head coach Mack Brown said. "If we'd have asked everybody in here nobody in here would have picked us. We had our chances to play better. We had our chance to be in the game in the fourth quarter, and that's what we needed to do."
When North Carolina blitzed out to a 9-1 start, the team formed an identity with its nationally prominent scoring offense that regularly dominated in the red zone. Through the first nine games, the Tar Heels scored on 91.5 percent of their red zone trips. In the last three outings — which have all resulted in losses — this total has dipped to 52.9 percent.
"Down in the red zone you have to have players make plays and tonight we didn't do that, and that starts with me," Maye said.
Despite the lopsided score, the Tar Heels actually seemed to adhere to their gameplan, which makes the end result that much more startling.
Junior wide receiver Josh Downs registered a patented 11-catch, 100-yard performance in what was likely his last game in a Tar Heel uniform. Clemson’s star running back Will Shipley was held to just 18 rushing yards, and North Carolina actually held a 386-385 advantage in terms of total offense.
Glancing at such a box score before the game might have suggested a different outcome, or at least one that was more competitive. But in the midst of a 29-point drubbing on the national stage, such mishaps were placed on a pedestal, and Clemson — a team with championship DNA — quickly took advantage.
"They have a very good defense, very good front seven and they have a great coaching staff, but we just didn't finish when we had the opportunities," Downs said.
As UNC awaits its bowl fate — with many projecting the Tar Heels to face No. 15 Oregon in the Holiday Bowl — questions still remain about whether or not the North Carolina program belongs in the top echelon of the nation’s elite teams.
If the Tar Heels want to stake their claim in that discussion, they’ll have to start making plays when they mean the most.
"Were we awful? No. Should we have gotten beat this bad? No." Brown said. "We allowed things to happen to let the score get out of what it should have been."
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