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'Too many mistakes': Offense sputters in UNC football's 31-20 loss to Clemson

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UNC sophomore running back Omarion Hampton (28) runs toward the end zone during the football game against Clemson at Memorial Stadium in Clemson, SC, on Saturday, Nov. 18, 2023. UNC lost 31-20.

CLEMSON, S.C. — "Big O" hadn't fumbled all season.

Well, that was until Saturday.

After a fumble less than three minutes into the game, sophomore running back Omarion Hampton appeared poised to put UNC up 14-0  on a breakaway rush down the field.  Then— out of seemingly nowhere — Clemson defensive back Nate Wiggins tracked him down and punched the football out of Hampton's arms at the Clemson 1-yard line.

UNC head coach Mack Brown didn't hide his surprise after the game. 

"I don't know, he's been great with the ball," Brown said. "That's why my hair is gray."

Hampton's two early turnovers and Drake Maye's inefficiency — the sophomore quarterback recorded a season-low 44.4 percent completion rate — headlined an uncharacteristically poor offensive outing in No. 22 UNC's 31-20 defeat at Clemson. Against the Tigers, a North Carolina team that entered Saturday ranked No. 3 nationally in total offense looked completely lost.

"We were up and down defensively, but we were more inconsistent on offense," Brown said. "Our offense usually runs up and down the field. Tonight, we didn't."

On Saturday, Brown's typical praises of consistency for Maye and Co. — along the lines of "the offense is the offense" — turned into harsher words.

Brown called the Tar Heels' 4-for-14 conversion rate on third downs "unacceptable." He cited Clemson's dominance of possession (the Tigers ran 89 plays to UNC's 69)  as "too many plays" for the Tigers. At halftime, Brown told the Tar Heels they should've been up 21-0.

It's clear Maye shared some of that frustration, although he'd elect "disappointed" as the more representative term for his emotions. 

First quarter, I felt like we had a chance to get up on them and get a jump on them," Maye said. "But we just hurt ourselves, kind of shot ourselves in the foot."

Maye, who threw for a near season-low 209 yards, cited the Tigers' man coverage as a challenge for the Tar Heels — despite the fact UNC game-planned it "all week."

"They're mixing up looks up front, giving them some different pressures," Maye said. "They even brought Cover 0 a few times. We had to have answers."

But North Carolina remained puzzled, even after Maye said it was clear the Tigers were settling into their man coverage, preventing the Tar Heels from capitalizing on multiple turnovers forced by their defense.

When UNC forced a fumble in the second quarter, the Tar Heel offense was on and off the field in just four plays. Later in the fourth quarter, Clemson forced another North Carolina three-and-out before Maye capped off the game by throwing an interception on the first play of UNC's final drive.

"We didn't play complimentary football tonight because we didn't stay on the field offensively," Brown said. "When we scored, we scored fast."

Senior linebacker Cedric Gray, while emphatic that fatigue didn't play a role in the defense's performance, also pointed to UNC's inability to dominate possession.

Still, there are positives North Carolina can take into its final regular season game against N.C. State on Saturday. Despite Hampton's rough start, he ended Saturday with 178 rushing yards — complete with a 55-yard touchdown run in which he broke multiple Tiger tackles.

But while the star running back regained his footing, North Carolina's offense as a whole never did. And according to Brown, those errors ended up costing the Tar Heels in Death Valley.

"We made too many mistakes to beat a good team at a hard place to play like this."

@shelbymswanson

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@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com


Shelby Swanson

Shelby Swanson is the 2023-24 sports editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as an assistant sports editor and senior writer. Shelby is a junior pursuing a double major in media and journalism and Hispanic literatures and cultures.