Klubnik, No. 10 Clemson rout No. 24 UNC 39-10 for ACC title

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Backup quarterback Cade Klubnik completed 20 of 24 passes for 279 yards and a touchdown and ran for another score and No. 10 Clemson reclaimed the Atlantic Coast Conference championship with a 39-10 victory over No. 24 North Carolina on Saturday night.

Cornerback Nate Wiggins broke up two passes in the end zone, blocked a field goal and returned an interception 98 yards for a touchdown to help the Tigers win their seventh ACC title in eight seasons.

Clemson (11-2, No. 9 CFP) won six straight ACC championships from 2015 to 2020 before failing to reach the title game last season. But coach Dabo Swinney‘s Tigers rebounded in a big way, going 9-0 against ACC foes this season to reach the Orange Bowl.

They have Klubnik to thank for that.

With Clemson down 7-0, Swinney benched two-year starter D.J. Uiagalelei after the Tigers failed to pick up a first down on their first two possessions, Swinney turned to Klubnik, a 5-star recruit from Austin, Texas. He responded by leading the Tigers to four straight scores and a 24-10 lead at halftime.

Clemson stretched it to 39-10 heading into the fourth quarter.

It wasn’t the first time Swinney has turned to Klubnik.

He benched Uiagalelei in the second half against Syracuse and Klubnik responded by leading the Tigers to a come-from-behind 27-21 victory. Swinney also turned to Klubnik against Notre Dame, although the results were the opposite with the freshman throwing a Pick 6 in a 35-14 loss.

Swinney has never been shy about replacing veteran QBs with less experienced players. He did it in 2014, sitting Cole Stoudt for Deshaun Watson, and again in 2018 replacing Kelly Bryant with Trevor Lawrence.

ACC player of the year Drake Maye was limited to 268 yards passing and turned the ball over three times for North Carolina (9-4, No. 23 CFP), which was seeking its first ACC championship since 1980 when Lawrence Taylor was wreaking havoc on quarterbacks.

Maye got things started on the right foot for the Tar Heels, capping an 11-play, 78-yard drive with a 3-yard touchdown run for a 7-0 lead on UNC’s first possession.

But the Tar Heels repeatedly sputtered on offense inside the red zone after that, the biggest blow coming when Maye misfired near the goal line and Wiggins – who had struggled in Clemson’s 51-45 win over Wake Forest – returned his pass for a touchdown to give Clemson a 32-10 lead with 5:05 left in the third quarter.

Klubnik provided an immediate spark for Clemson.

He led the Tigers on a nine-play, 71-yard drive, culminating in a 1-yard TD pass to Davis Allen. After Maye’s fumble, Klubnik caught a 19-yard pass from Phil Mafah to set up Mafah’s 4-yard touchdown run – Clemson’s second TD in a span of 40 seconds.

Klubnik then showed off his arm strength with a 68-yard pass to fellow freshman Cole Turner to set up his own 1-yard TD run for a 21-7 lead.

END OF AN ERA

This is the final year the ACC will feature its two division winners playing for a championship. In future years, all ACC teams will be lumped together and the two teams with the best records will advance to the title game.

THE TAKEAWAY

North Carolina: Maye garnered plenty of Heisman Trophy talk during the season, but the Tar Heels offense has stalled resulting in a three-game losing streak. But as long as Maye doesn’t transfer – and there are no indications he will given his family history at North Carolina – the Tar Heels have a good chance to get back to the ACC title game next season.

Clemson: The Tigers have set a high bar by winning national championships, so as much as they will enjoy getting back atop the ACC mountain there will be plenty of talk over whether Swinney cost his team a chance at a spot in the College Football Playoff by not turning to Klubnik at quarterback earlier in the season. It seems Uiagalelei might be a logical transfer portal candidate.

UP NEXT

Clemson will play in the Orange Bowl, while North Carolina awaits a bowl bid.

UNC’s Drake Maye rides star-making season into ACC title game

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Drake Maye has put up big numbers all season for No. 24 North Carolina. Now he has a chance to lead the Tar Heels to something more: an Atlantic Coast Conference championship.

The second-year passer has played so well that he stirred national buzz as a potential Heisman Trophy candidate. Those hopes dwindled after two straight losses for some late-season adversity, but he can still lead the program to its first ACC title in more than four decades against No. 10 Clemson in Charlotte.

“It’s just literally a dream of going out in an NFL stadium, playing against a team the caliber of Clemson – it gets you anxious,” Maye said. “At the end of the day, it’s why you play the sport of football.”

North Carolina (9-3, 6-2 ACC) opened the season with uncertainty about how much they’d get at quarterback after the departure of star quarterback Sam Howell to the NFL. But Maye beat out Jacolby Criswell in a preseason position battle, then looked nothing like a youngster in his first season as a starter.

He leads the Bowl Subdivision ranks in total offense (373.0 yards per game) and is tied for fourth in FBS with 35 touchdown passes, just two behind national leaders C.J. Stroud of Ohio State and Clayton Tune of Houston.

Maye has also thrown just five interceptions on 440 attempts – a rate of 1.1% in an aggressive offense that pushes the ball downfield – and leads his team in rushing yards.

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney knows plenty about Maye. The Tigers recruited him out of Huntersville, a town about 20 minutes north of Charlotte. Swinney said he expected Maye would end up with the Tar Heels as an instate product.

Maye did so after reversing a commitment to Nick Saban at Alabama.

“He is a very creative player, and a very confident and poised player,” Swinney said.

Maye led UNC to its first-ever 6-0 road record this season – all by seven or fewer points – and the last Coastal Division title in the league’s final year in the two-division format with a win at Wake Forest. But the Tar Heels have followed with losses to Georgia Tech on Nov. 19 and rival North Carolina State.

Those losses were the only games this season Maye hasn’t thrown at least two scoring passes.

Offensive coordinator Phil Longo pointed to N.C. State’s veteran defense giving alternating looks to Maye. Sometimes it was applying more rush pressure to force Maye to get the ball out of his hands. Other times, it was dropping eight players into coverage to force Maye to be patient without as many deep looks.

“Our successful drives, I thought we did a great job of being patient,” Longo said. “And on the drives where we didn’t, I thought we weren’t patient. Maybe we forced a ball or we didn’t adjust our route the way we need to or hit the run where we needed to.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we get some of that from Clemson,” Longo continued. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we see that more in the future because it’s a way to maybe minimize explosive plays.”

UNC hasn’t won an ACC title since 1980, back when eventual NFL star Lawrence Taylor was the Tar Heels’ All-American linebacker. That was three years before Maye’s father Mark began his career as UNC’s quarterback and eight years before Mack Brown‘s first coaching tenure began in Chapel Hill.

If Maye can lead the Tar Heels past the Tigers, he’ll have a championship run of his own to brag about with his brothers.

One older brother, Cole, was part of Florida’s run to the NCAA baseball title in June 2017. That came roughly three months after another brother, Luke, hit the last-second jumper to send UNC to the Final Four and ultimately win the NCAA men’s basketball title on the way to becoming an unexpected star.

“Team success at the end of the day is what counts in the family, that we brag about,” Maye said. “So I think an ACC championship, that’s a pretty big deal.”

Finley leads N.C. State past No. 18 UNC in 2OT in 1st start

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Devin Carter and two teammates took a North Carolina State flag and planted it at rival North Carolina’s midfield logo amid a wild celebration.

The Wolfpack spiked weeks of frustration with a signature road win to end the regular season.

“It was just spur of the moment,” Carter said. “It was amazing to go out there like that. It’s joy.”

Ben Finley threw for 271 yards and two touchdowns in his first career start, and N.C. State beat Drake Maye and No. 18 North Carolina 30-27 on Friday when Noah Burnette duck-hooked a 35-yard field goal try in the second overtime.

Maye connected with Antoine Green from 4 yards out on the final play of regulation to tie the game at 24-all, but N.C. State (8-4, 4-4 Atlantic Coast Conference) kept the ACC Coastal Division champion Tar Heels (9-3, 6-2) out of the end zone in the first overtime.

Burnette – who also missed from 27 yards in the fourth quarter – made a 26-yarder in the first OT and the Wolfpack tied it on Christopher Dunn‘s 31-yarder. Dunn was good from 21 yards in the second overtime and N.C. State, which never trailed in regulation, handed North Carolina its second straight loss.

“I was running around trying to hug everyone,” Finley said.

Finley’s older brother, former N.C. State QB Ryan Finley, orchestrated two wins in North Carolina’s Kenan Stadium.

“It’s nice to keep the Finleys undefeated here,” coach Dave Doeren said.

Carter had six receptions for 130 yards and a touchdown for the Wolfpack, who snapped a two-game skid and pulled out a thrilling victory over their in-state rival for the second straight year.

“I loved the way our kids played. They fought their guts out,” North Carolina coach Mack Brown said. “They didn’t play great in the first half, but they were really good on defense, maybe the best defense we’ve had this year.”

Carter caught Finley’s back-shoulder pass just outside the end zone and backed in for a 26-yard touchdown with 3:54 remaining in regulation for the Wolfpack’s first points of the second half. Finley was so far down the depth chart that he estimated he hadn’t thrown a pass to Carter in a year and a half.

As a fourth stringer, Finley didn’t imagine ending up in this situation.

“Just kind of messing around on the scout team and still getting better,” he said.

Finley became N.C. State’s fourth starting quarterback in a seven-game span. He completed 27 of 40 passes.

The Tar Heels and freshman sensation Maye closed the regular season with dispiriting one-score losses to Georgia Tech and the Wolfpack ahead of the ACC title game clash with No. 8 Clemson next Saturday.

Maye finished 29 of 49 for 233 yards, one interception and the tying TD toss on fourth-and-goal to Green, which followed an apparent touchdown catch by John Copenhaver that was overturned on a replay review.

“They missed one field goal, and we missed two and that’s what the game came down to,” Brown said. “I thought about going for it on the fourth-and-3 at the end (in the second overtime), but we were playing really good on defense.”

Maye’s 14-yard, third-down scramble with 7:53 to play allowed the Tar Heels to pull even for the first time since early in the first quarter.

N.C. State got off to a strong start. After forcing a North Carolina punt, the Wolfpack needed three plays to score on Jack Chambers‘ 2-yard quarterback keeper.

Finley hooked up with a diving Terrell Timmons Jr. in the end zone from 28 yards out, giving Timmons his first career touchdown early in the second quarter.

Elijah Green‘s 9-yard run gave the Tar Heels a boost with 5:03 left in the half. Dunn’s 29-yard field goal on the last play of the half pushed N.C. State’s edge to 17-10.

RECORD DAY

Dunn broke the ACC scoring record in the first half with his second extra point. In the second half, his 43-yard field goal attempt was wide left, his first miss in 23 chances this season.

SECONDARY ISSUES

North Carolina was without starting cornerback Tony Grimes because of an injury. The Tar Heels lost starting safety Cam'Ron Kelly in the first half and starting cornerback Storm Duck in the second half to game-ending injuries.

STATE STUFF

N.C. State beat in-state foes East Carolina, Wake Forest and North Carolina by a combined 13 points. “It’s awesome to have that,” Doeren said.

The Wolfpack and Tar Heels had split two previous overtime games.

THE TAKEAWAY

N.C. State: The Wolfpack relied on defense to contain one of the country’s most explosive offenses. The win was a nice consolation prize for a team that started 5-1 and looked like a contender in the Atlantic Division.

North Carolina: The Tar Heels weren’t crisp for most of the game and still nearly pulled off a comeback for the ages. This will sting, particularly given the failure to score a touchdown in OT.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

North Carolina could drop out of the AP Top 25 with consecutive home losses, though losing in two overtimes might temper the damage.

UP NEXT

N.C. State: Awaits a bowl invitation.

North Carolina: Prepares to face Clemson for the ACC title in Charlotte.