What led to UNC football collapse vs. Clemson in ACC championship

·5 min read

With UNC in the red zone, looking to cut Clemson's ACC Championship game lead to one touchdown midway through the third quarter Saturday, the Tar Heels' redshirt freshman quarterback made a huge mistake.

A scrambling Drake Maye overthrew tight end John Copenhaver and Clemson sophomore cornerback Nate Wiggins made the interception. Then he ran it 98 yards at Charlotte's Bank of America Stadium for a Tigers touchdown that would ultimately lead to a 39-10 victory and Clemson's seventh ACC title in the past eight seasons.

Cade Klubnik provided a needed spark at quarterback and Wiggins kept a pair of UNC drives empty with his end zone defense as the Tigers (11-2) ran away with their 21st ACC title.

FEELING RIGHT AT HOME:ACC football championship game between UNC, Clemson to showcase talent from Charlotte

ACC'S FUTURE:Clemson football eyes a new-look, wide-open ACC for the 2023 season

Here's how it happened

No. 22 UNC (9-4) got off to a quick start, forcing a three-and-out on the No. 11 Tigers' first possession and then driving 78 yards on 11 plays in 14:03 to take a 7-0 lead on Maye's 3-yard run.

The Tar Heels forced another three-and-out on Clemson's second possession as starting quarterback DJ Uiagalelei struggled. The junior completed just 2-of-5 passes for 10 yards before being pulled for Klubnik, who made an instant impact.

Klubnik in command

Klubnik took over at quarterback in the first quarter and promptly sparked a seven-play, 71-yard scoring drive to tie the game at 7.

The freshman completed all five passes during the drive for 50 yards, including a 1-yard TD toss to Davis Allen, and Klubnik had an 8-yard run on the drive.

He had another highlight play to set up the Tigers' second TD of the first quarter after handing off to Phil Mafah, who then threw to Klubnik for a 19-yard gain that reached UNC's 4-yard line.

TRICKERY:Cade Klubnik trick play sets up touchdown for Clemson football in ACC Championship vs UNC

Mafah then scored on a touchdown run to give Clemson a pair of TDs in just over a minute. The second score came after a fumble on Maye's handoff to Omarion Hampton that was recovered on the Tar Heel 23.

Klubnik didn't miss a pass attempt until just 19 seconds remained in the first half. He completed 10 of 11 passes for 149 yards and a touchdown before halftime. He also ran for 32 yards and another TD.

Besides the trick play highlight, Klubnik also provided Clemson's longest pass play of the season with a 68-yard pass that Cole Turner took to the 1-yard line, setting up Klubnik's rushing TD to put the Tigers up 21-10.

BT Potter then matched his career long with a 52-yard field goal to end the first half, making him the first player in ACC history with four seasons of 100 or more points.

Pulled in the fourth quarter for third-stringer Hunter Johnson, Klubnik's game ended with 20-of-24 completions for 279 yards with one passing TD and one rushing. His QB rating was 194.7.

Wiggins' impact

Wiggins was huge for the Tigers' defense. He knocked a pass away from Antoine Green on the goal line and then blocked a field-goal attempt on the next play.

Those two stops made UNC's 17-play drive come up empty and kept the Tar Heels from mounting any kind of momentum.

On UNC's next drive, Wiggins knocked another would-be touchdown reception away from Green in the end zone, forcing a third-down incompletion and subsequent punt.

Then came the back-breaker as Wiggins made his first career interception in UNC's red zone and returned it 98 yards for the Tigers' fourth touchdown of the game.

In five trips to the red zone, UNC came away with just 10 points.

Protecting Maye

Clemson used a three-man rush, dropping eight defenders into coverage early in the game, and Maye responded well. Midway through the quarter, the Tigers began to pressure the redshirt freshman more, with success.

"We've got to protect him," UNC coach Mack Brown told ABC before the game. "Got to give him a chance. Drake's good against everybody when he's got time. They've got the best front we've seen all year, maybe the best front in college football. We've got our hands full trying to protect."

Maye was sacked three times in the first half and lost a fumble on a handoff.

He managed two pass completions of more than 20 yards in the first 30 minutes and converted a third-and-15 after being penalized for face masking.

The pick by Wiggins was Maye's sixth interception of the season. Maye threw another pick in the fourth quarter.

Maye's 268 passing yards in the game give him 4,115 for the season to set the ACC freshman passing record, beating Jameis Winston's freshman total of 4,057 at Florida State in 2013.

Sure-handed Downs

One bright spot for UNC was the play of junior receiver Josh Downs. The nephew of former Tar Heels star and current cornerbacks coach Dre Bly, Downs made 11 catches for 100 yards Saturday.

It was Downs' fifth 100-yard receiving game of the season.

Elijah Green had 65 yards rushing on 21 carries and Maye ran 11 times for 24 yards.

This article originally appeared on The Fayetteville Observer: What led to UNC football collapse vs. Clemson in ACC championship