CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Leading up to the ACC Championship, national commentators talked about the hot streak North Carolina was on, Clemson’s turnover problem, and the inevitable upset that would finally come against the Tigers.
What they didn’t discuss was the poise of Dabo Swinney’s team, and the tenacity with which the Tigers would fight.
Deshaun Watson put an exclamation mark on his season to this point with a career high 131 rushing yards and five total touchdowns against a Tar Heel defense that could never find an answer for him.
The North Carolina secondary came into the game regarded as one of the best in the nation, and Watson simply stayed calm and completed 26 of 42 passes for 289.
The weakness of the Tar Heel defense all year, its inability to stop the run, was everything but a weakness as they held Wayne Gallman in check in the first half. It was clear what each team’s game plan was early on. The Tigers wanted to pound the ball with Gallman and the Tar Heels were going to sell out to stop the run.
Eventually, though, the Clemson offensive line and repeated bruising runs from Gallman would be too much. The Tar Heel defense, which spent nearly 40 minutes on the field, just got worn down and Clemson’s relentless ground game would pound out 319 yards for the night.
North Carolina found the going tough on offense as well. Marquise Williams was hounded all night. Though the Tigers only sacked him twice, Williams spent much of the night running for his life.
He found some rhythm in the fourth quarter, but it was too little, too late, and he would finish having completed only a third of his passes with one being intercepted.
With the 45-37 win, Clemson finished the season 13-0 and, for the first time in its history, had three wins against teams with 10 or more wins (FSU, UNC, Notre Dame). The Tigers were rewarded for their stellar season with the top seed in the College Football Playoff and will face Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl on New Year’s Eve.
The Tigers and Sooners met in last year’s Russell Athletic Bowl in Orlando. Clemson rolled in a 40-6 romp of Oklahoma at the time and did so without Deshaun Watson.
Clemson had an unexpected source of support Saturday night when they played for the ACC Championship in Charlotte: the Fairfield Central cheerleaders were on hand to perform for the crowd. The Griffin cheerleaders were honored along with other area schools and showed exceptional school spirit.
Reach James Inabinet at 803-635-4016.