It is the third consecutive loss for the Tigers, who now find themselves in a deep hole if they are to make a return trip to the ACC Championship.
“First of all, I’m extremely embarrassed. I’m very sorry," Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said afterwards. "This team deserves better. Clemson deserves better. The fans deserve better.
"We’re just not a very well-coached football team right now. That’s my fault.”
Clemson was hit with nine penalties for 81 yards, three of which came on North Carolina’s 18-play fourth quarter scoring drive. The first two flags were thrown on two different third-downs—on for pass interference and another for holding. The third was for off-sides, which nullified a fourth-down sack.
T.J. Yates then hit Johnny White for 12 yards to convert the fourth-down attempt—the fourth successful fourth-down try.
White scored on a 26-yard run three plays later to give North Carolina a 21-10 lead with 7:57 to play.
“That’s very frustrating, as a defensive player, because we didn’t get off and give the offense and opportunity to go score,” said Da’Quan Bowers, who finished with two sacks. “If we could have got off the field, the offense had more time to go win, get the touchdown in. The defense just couldn’t get it together and get off the field.”
Following Kyle Parker’s 74-yard touchdown pass to Jaron Brown on the ensuing possession, North Carolina managed to shave 5:12 off the clock before Clemson had one final crack at the win.
Nine plays later, 13 seconds were left on the clock—nowhere near enough time for Clemson to drive 81 yards with no timeouts.
Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele said it was the Tar Heels’ final drive that “really made the difference in the game.
“We’ve just got to keep hammering away, coaching them hard, and helping them get better."
North Carolina converted on just 3 of 14 third-downs, threw for 164 yards and rushed for 91 on 32 carries.
“You would look at that, and think, well, you’re going out here with a victory,” Steele said. “But, hat off to North Carolina. We’re not [the winner].”
Clemson opened the 2009 season in similar fashion—a disappointing 2-3 start.
“Without a doubt, we need to get in a rhythm and get on a roll,” Parker said. “It would make it a lot easier whenever you don’t have to come out here and deal with failure so many times in a row. It’s frustrating. You start questioning what you’re doing.
“I think the biggest thing, we just need to keep sticking to what we’re doing, correct a few things, and it will be all right.”
Andre Ellington, who led the ACC in rushing before Saturday’s game, rushed just 12 times for 55 yards. Jamie Harper gained 27 yards on 11 carries and scored the first Clemson touchdown on a 10-yard run in the third quarter.
As a team, Clemson rushed for 91 yards on 27 carries.
“Every plan that we have is going to start with being able to rush the ball effectively,” said offensive coordinator Billy Napier. “I’ve got to do a better job of putting our players into position to run it more effectively.”
White, the game’s most effective runner, carried 22 times for 89 yards and two touchdowns. The first score capped North Carolina’s opening possession, a 12-play, 48-yard drive, which lasted 6:11.
Chandler Catanzaro booted a 48-yard field goal, cutting the score to 7-3 with 6:19 to play in the opening half.
North Carolina reached the end zone again when Yates found Jheranie Boyd on a 9-yard pass to give the Tar Heels a 14-3 lead at halftime. The score was setup by a 54-yard reception by White, who also led the Tar Heels with six catches for 90 yards.
With the loss, Clemson fell to 2-3 (0-2 in ACC). North Carolina improved to 3-2 (1-1 in ACC).
“We were 2-3 last year, came back and had a great finish and won our division, so anything is possible,” Swinney said. “Certainly, you always draw on your past experiences, but right now, the only objective is to win a football game and get this team to stop beating themselves. That is not the mark of a well-coached team.”