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The Daily Tar Heel

Preview: UNC Football prepares to face a surging Clemson team in Death Valley

UNC first-year defensive back Marcus Allen (29) tackles Clemson senior wide-receiver Joseph Ngata (10) during the 2022 Subway ACC Football Championship Game against Clemson to begin at the Bank of America Stadium on Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022. UNC fell to Clemson 39-10.

UNC sophomore quarterback Drake Maye wasn’t alive the last time the Tar Heels beat the Clemson Tigers in Death Valley.

That was in 2001, a little over 20 years ago. Julius Peppers was on that year's UNC team, the first iPhone was six years from being released and Maye wouldn't be born for another year. 

Last year, the Tar Heels had a chance to defeat the Tigers in the highly-touted ACC Championship game. The Tar Heels got an early 7-0 lead, causing Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney to call first-year quarterback Cade Klubnik off the bench to replace starter DJ Uiagaleli. Klubnik came in, dueled with Maye, and tore up the Tar Heels defense with an 83 percent pass completion rate for 279 yards, and was responsible for two touchdowns en route to a 39-10 Tiger win.

As UNC travels down to Death Valley to take on the Tigers and Klubnik on Saturday, redemption is in Maye’s hands. 

Clemson's season started off rocky, opening with a loss to Duke and an overtime heartbreaker to No. 4 Florida State. But despite a 6-4 record, UNC head coach Mack Brown said that Clemson is not a team to be counted out, especially considering the 73 points of total offense the Tigers scored over the last two weeks in back-to-back victories over Notre Dame and Georgia Tech. 

“I mean, they dominated the Georgia Tech team that beat us,” Brown said. “So I sat there and watched it and said, ‘Oh, boys are back.’ They woke up.”

If the Tar Heels want to tango with the ‘woken up’ Tigers, then UNC's defense must continue its positive momentum after North Carolina's double-overtime win over Duke on Saturday.The crux for the Tar Heels, however, is closing out games. UNC's last three opponents have scored a combined 44 points in the fourth quarter.

The Clemson offense, headed by coordinator Garrett Riley, works the perimeter and splits its offensive production in the air and on the ground. The rush brigade is led by Phil Mafah and Will Shipley.UNC's defensive front will need to zero in on keeping both the backs and Klubnik – who can also turn on the jets – contained. 

Clemson's passing game, on the other hand, is intentional and methodic. It compliments the ground game and has allowed the Tigers to average 408 yards per contest.

“The last two weeks you can see that there's a definite means to the madness with what they're trying to do,” UNC defensive coordinator Gene Chizik said. “They're intent on running the football and they're intent on having a controlled passing game. And [Klubnik’s] been really, really effective.”

For the Tar Heel offense, which ranks No. 3 in total yards per game, it will be up to Maye to manage the clock and find gaps in Clemson's defense. In particular, the Tiger's front is a force to be reckoned with, touting linemen that UNC offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey described as long, big and physical. 

The Tar Heel offensive line needs to create gaps for sophomore running back Omarion Hampton, who currently leads the ACC in rushing yards.  

“They get after you,” Lindsey said of Clemson's defense. “Very similar to what we saw this week [against] Duke from that standpoint, as far as being physical, and we got to make sure that we meet that challenge and be physical as well.”

The offensive production of Hampton must be supported by the connection between Maye and his receiving corps – namely juniors Tez Walker and Bryson Nesbit.  

Simply put, the Tar Heels will have to fire on all cylinders in a hostile Death Valley environment in order to record a victory over the Tigers and up their bowl game stock.

“This last month of the season, we're gonna see some really good defenses and this is another one of the best, if not the best,” Lindsey said. “We got our work cut out for us for sure.”


@dthsports |

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