A five-word question for Clemson coach Dabo Swinney:
What took you so long?
Swinney yanked struggling quarterback DJ Uiagalelei in the first quarter in Saturday’s 39-10 ACC Championship Game win over North Carolina. And that worked out very well for the Tigers, as backup quarterback Cade Klubnik rode into the game on a white horse and saved the night for Clemson.
With Clemson down 7-0, playing in Charlotte at Bank of America Stadium before a crowd of 64,115, Klubnik entered and promptly engineered three straight touchdown drives. During that time, the true freshman threw a 68-yard pass, had a 19-yard reception on a trick play, ran for one short TD and passed for another.
In other words, the freshman who became the game’s MVP looked like everything Clemson fans have been dreaming of — and also looked like the sort of player who would have won the South Carolina rivalry game the week before if Clemson coach Swinney had only let him play.
I asked Swinney after the game if, given how spectacular Klubnik was against UNC, he regretted not letting Klubnik play at all against the Gamecocks.
“I’ve got a lot of regrets from the South Carolina game — but not really,” Swinney said. “Again, DJ is not why we lost. But hindsight is always 20-20. There’s a lot of things I wish we could have done over, like 4th-and-1 , and not fumbled the ball.... But you don’t get a chance to do that. “
Swinney stuck with Uiagalelei against the Gamecocks despite a horrible second half of quarterbacking encased inside of a nasty day of throwing. Uiagalelei’s stats in that 31-30 loss to the Gamecocks looked like those of a high school triple-option quarterback pressed into throwing against a better team: 8-of-29 for 99 yards.
And if Clemson had won that game, the Tigers would have been very much in the hunt for a College Football Playoff berth after Saturday’s round of upsets.
Instead, Tiger fans are left with an ACC championship, which is no small prize, but also a lot of “What ifs?”
It started no better for the Tigers Saturday night in the title contest than the second half went vs. South Carolina, despite Clemson (11-2) trying to give Uiagalelei several easy throws early to ease him into things. That’s not something you should have to do with a junior QB in an ACC title game, but Clemson tried it, and Uiagalelei missed most of those throws, too, in a pair of three-and-out series.
Finally, Swinney had enough (the coach said later he had planned to insert Klubnik into the game for the third series no matter what and then play it by ear from there). In came Klubnik late in the first quarter, who had already spelled Uiagalelei in eight different games this season for various reasons, but never that early.
Immediately, the game’s momentum changed. Klubnik started hitting his receivers in the hands with the ball rather than the feet. And although he’s not as gifted a runner as Uiagalelei, it hardly matters when you’re completing your first 10 passes in a row, as Klubnik did. (The 11th was dropped).
Klubnik ended up completing 20 of 24 passes for 279 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions, slinging more passes in this game than he had all season. His most memorable play, though, was his 1-yard TD run.
“I think my favorite moment was probably scoring the first touchdown, and I actually just kind of saw my family up in the stands,” Klubnik said. “I just found them, and that was a pretty cool moment for me.”
What happened Saturday night was a changing of the guard at QB for Clemson.
Klubnik will start in the Orange Bowl Dec. 30, Swinney said, and undoubtedly beyond that for the Tigers. Uiagalelei, who is scheduled to graduate at Clemson later this month, would be a prime candidate for the transfer portal. I would bet he will start somewhere else in 2023 as he tries to repair his reputation for throwing the ball inconsistently. Uiagalelei might also declare for the 2023 NFL draft.
Swinney said of Uiagalelei afterward: “Moving forward, Cade will be the starter, and DJ will be the backup.... I’m sure there will be plenty of conversations. He graduates in a week or so... Obviously it didn’t end tonight the way he would like, but he’s got a bright, bright future as a football player. He’s a guy that always have a special place in my heart, because nobody has ever worked harder.”
By halftime, it was 24-10, Clemson. Klubnik directed Clemson into the end zone on his first three series and then to a field goal on his fourth march.
Klubnik completed more passes in the first half than Uiagalelei did the entire game against South Carolina, but he wasn’t perfect. His first real mistake came on his unforced fumble in the third quarter, which he recovered but which short-circuited his fifth possession and meant Clemson had to punt.
By then, though, the momentum had shifted. UNC’s Drake Maye — the newly-minted ACC Player of the Year, trying to get the Tar Heels to their first ACC football championship since 1980 — made his worst error of the game, throwing an interception on third-and-goal from the Clemson 5 right to the Tigers’ Nate Wiggins.
Wiggins ran it back 98 yards for a touchdown, giving Clemson a 32-10 lead after a two-point conversion that effectively salted the game away midway through the third quarter and sent many of the Tar Heel fans trudging out of the stadium. UNC dropped to 9-4 with its third consecutive loss. “The momentum changed when they brought Cade in,” sighed UNC coach Mack Brown.
It should be pointed out that Swinney has led Clemson to an era of unprecedented success. Saturday night’s win constituted Clemson’s seventh ACC title in the past eight seasons, and two national championships are threaded into that fabric, too. He’s made a million good decisions in his time at Clemson.
But he erred on this one by showing too much loyalty to Uiagalelei for too long.
Klubnik is the better quarterback now, and he probably has been since the Syracuse game Oct. 22. All he needed was some more reps and some more time. Entering the ACC title game, Klubnik had only thrown a total of 22 passes compared with Uiagalelei’s 365. I know he threw an interception against Notre Dame in difficult circumstances — and then immediately got yanked again — but c’mon. Klubnik would have given Clemson a better chance to win against USC.
“Why didn’t Clemson go to this dude last week?” tweeted Ryan Switzer, the former Tar Heel star receiver, as his former team kept getting dissected by Klubnik.
Why indeed? But Clemson finally has now.
And because of that, the future at Clemson looks brighter.