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Paws up, paws down: Clemson defeats UNC in ACC Championship

Katie Bradham // Photo Editor

Clemson won the ACC for the seventh time in eight seasons in 2022.

The Clemson Tigers took home their seventh ACC Championship in eight years on Saturday in a 39-10 win over the North Carolina Tar Heels. Here are some of the biggest takeaways from the game.
Paws up: Quarterback change
Starting quarterback DJ Uiagalelei struggled to complete when he took to the field, completing two of five passes for 10 yards before getting replaced by Cade Klubnik before the Tigers’ third offensive drive. 
There was a noticeable change in the crowd when the freshman signal-caller took to the field following Uiagalelei’s consecutive three-and-outs. Klubnik looked confident both in and out of the pocket as he completed passes under pressure and even completed a trick play on the receiving end of a 19-yard pass from running back Phil Mafah.
Klubnik led the Tigers to score 24 points in the first half alone, with two of Clemson’s three touchdowns credited to the former five-star recruit. His longest play of the night was a 68-yard completion to freshman wide receiver Cole Turner, which set up Klubnik’s rushing touchdown on the next play. 
In the second half, Klubnik had no problem maintaining this accelerated offensive tempo. Clemson tacked on another 15 points, making the final score 39-10. 
North Carolina head coach Mack Brown and the Tar Heels were clearly not expecting the quarterback change. 
“Cade had played very little all year, and when he went in at Notre Dame, I think he threw an interception. So we totally thought we would see DJ because they hadn’t changed all year,” Brown said after the game. “We stopped them the first two times. DJ was struggling. That’s exactly what we thought would happen and hope would happen because he’s played good at times. But he didn’t play well last week, and he was really struggling. They weren’t trying to run the ball. We thought they would try to line up and run the ball down our throat like Notre Dame did. But then Cade came in and hit 20 of 24 and 10 of 11 in the first half and really played great.”
Paws up: Clemson’s opportunistic defense
The Tar Heels looked to exhaust the Tigers’ defense early in the game with a 78-yard scoring drive on North Carolina’s first offensive drive. 
The Tigers were quick to turn this early hiccup around, however, ending the Tar Heels’ next two drives in under a minute apiece. Defensive tackle Ruke Orhorhoro was the hero of the second drive, as he recovered a fumble that allowed Mafah to score his touchdown two plays later. 
By the game’s end, Clemson’s defense showed perhaps its best performance of the year, holding North Carolina to just 10 points after the Tar Heels averaged over 37 points per game the whole regular season. 
“I think coming in, we knew we could limit big play passes, challenge them to go to the run game maybe a little more than they wanted,” Clemson defensive coordinator Wes Goodwin said. “Every time they called a run, that’s one less pass that we had to defend.”
The Tigers ended with seven tackles for loss compared to Carolina’s zero, eight quarterback hurries compared to Carolina’s zero and a combined 39 solo tackles. Linebackers Barrett Carter and Jeremiah Trotter Jr. each had a team-high nine total tackles on the night, with Trotter adding three sacks as well. 
Paws up: Nate Wiggins
Sophomore cornerback Nate Wiggins had the most impactful performance of his career in his first ACC Championship game. 
In the first half, he had two back-to-back plays that kept North Carolina from putting points on the board. Wiggins first broke up a pass in the end zone intended for North Carolina wide receiver Antoine Green, forcing the Tar Heels to kick for a field goal. On the very next play, he then blocked said 31-yard field goal attempt from the Tar Heels. 
Wiggins added another pass breakup in the end zone, again intended for Green, which resulted in a 25-yard field goal for Carolina at the end of the first half. The Tar Heels would not score on a red zone opportunity for the rest of the game.
The second half saw Wiggins take to the field in a historical way, as he returned an interception 98 yards at the 5:05 mark in the third quarter. The takeaway was the longest pick-six in ACC Championship history, and after a successful two-point conversion, the Tigers went up 32-10. 
“I woke up this morning thinking I was going to have a great game today,” Wiggins said after the game. “That was just my mindset all day.”
Paws down: What could have been
While fans are undoubtedly thrilled about the Tigers’ 39-10 victory over the Tar Heels, many are also left wondering what could have been had this team played as well as it did against the Tar Heels last week vs. the South Carolina Gamecocks.  
While Clemson struggled to complete passes against the Gamecocks, with Uiagalelei going 8-for-29 for 99 yards, Klubnik appeared to have no such worries as he finished the game 20-for-24 with 279 pass yards.
Additionally, the Tigers had no turnovers against the Tar Heels, whereas there were three against the Gamecocks — the last of which cost Clemson its final possession and ultimately ended the game 31-30. 
There were further upsets in the world of college football which could have created a completely different playoff scenario for the Tigers. On the same Saturday that saw the end of the Tigers’ 40-game home win streak, Ohio State fell to Michigan, North Carolina fell to N.C. State and LSU fell to Texas A&M. This weekend, TCU lost in overtime to Kansas State while the University of Southern California lost to Utah by over 20 points. 
Understandably, official playoff rankings have shifted massively. At the time the Tigers took on South Carolina, they were ranked No. 8 before dropping a spot to ninth. Had Clemson beaten South Carolina, fans wouldn’t be scratching their heads pondering what a playoff berth may have looked like.  

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