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Heel Tough Blog: ACC Championship Game Preview- Clemson

@ACCFootball- Twitter

The last time that the Tar Heels won the Atlantic Coast Conference, Lawrence Taylor was the player of the year in the conference and Mark Maye, the father of this year’s ACC Player of the Year, Drake Maye, was a freshman at Independence High School in Charlotte. That’s a more complicated way of saying that it has been a while since the Tar Heels have earned the ACC crown. On Saturday night in Charlotte, they will have a chance to end what is a 42 year drought and head to a second Orange Bowl in three years.

Team Breakdowns

Tar Heels

The Tar Heels should come into this game motivated after dropping their last two games of the regular season in heartbreaking fashion that has put a damper on what was looking like a special year. The offense needs to get back into rhythm after they really struggled in the past two weeks and it all starts with getting quarterback Drake Maye back on track. He has had his two worst performances of the season in this two game losing streak, but this is a guy that was one of the favorites for the Heisman after the Wake Forest game. One of the biggest factors in his struggles recently has been the troubles that the offensive line has stumbled upon as the season has progressed. The unit has allowed 25 plays of zero or negative yards in the past two weeks and is coming off a game where Maye was pressured a season-high 28 times. The right side of the unit and the running backs in pass protection have been the biggest problems and they need to step up in this game against the best defensive line they have seen so far this year. Maye also needs help from a receiver group that hasn’t been nearly as dominant as they had been for most of the season. Josh Downs is in the midst of one of the least productive stretches of his entire career and has had trouble holding on to the football at times, something that hasn’t really been an issue for him before this. Antoine Green’s return to the lineup last week was huge, but this group needs more from J.J. Jones opposite him. This offense also needs to utilize the tight ends more than they have down the stretch of the season, an element that made a huge difference for the team early in the season. The running game has been solid thanks to the breakout of Elijah Green, who continues to shoulder the bulk of the load since taking over the starting role. The biggest key to success for this offense will be getting Maye in a zone early which all starts with what this offensive line does.

The defense has kept this team around the last couple of weeks but still lacks the firepower up front to dominate struggling offenses like Georgia Tech and NC State’s units. The defensive line had just ten sacks in the last nine games of the regular season and finished the year with six games where they registered single-digit pressures on opposing quarterbacks. The group has lost the battle in the trenches way too often down the stretch of the season against less-than-stellar offensive lines, headlined by games like Virginia and Georgia Tech where they faced two of the worst units in all of the Power 5. The good news for this group is that the linebacker unit behind them has been outstanding considering all that they have on their plates. Cedric Gray has been a tackling machine and has done just about everything for this defense throughout the season and Power Echols has coupled nicely with him, especially in the run game. The secondary has had to work through some things, especially early in the season, but they have looked much better down the stretch thanks to guys like Storm Duck and DeAndre Boykins stepping their game up. Injuries will be a factor this weekend with both Duck and fellow starting corner Tony Grimes questionable, as well as starting safety Cam’Ron Kelly. The good news is that the depth guys who were forced into action because of their injuries thrived a week ago.

Special teams has taken a significant step this season thanks to Larry Porter taking over the coordinator duties, but they are coming off their worst performance of the season. Placekicker Noah Burnette hadn’t been tested often, but he had hit the important kick prior to last week. Against NC State he missed two from inside of 35 yards, including the one in the second overtime that lost the Tar Heels the game. Punter Ben Kiernan has been outstanding this season and had another solid outing against the Wolfpack, but he outpunted his coverage a few times and the punt coverage unit allowed the most yards that they have all season. The return units have continued to progress, especially the kick return unit with George Pettaway handling that role exclusively.


The Tigers will come in off a disappointing defeat of their own to their most hated rival. The South Carolina Gamecocks came into Death Valley last week and ended the program’s 40-game home winning streak and eliminated them from the College Football Playoff contention. Offensively, the Tigers enter the game with questions at quarterback after what might have been the worst performance that we have seen this season from D.J. Uiagalelei. Head coach Dabo Swinney has said this week that he is sticking with Uiagalelei, but the Tar Heels will also need to be prepared to see true freshman Cade Klubnik at some point. The Tar Heels' biggest focus in this one has to be taking away one of the most versatile offensive players in the country, Will Shipley. He is second in the ACC in rushing yards and touchdowns and he also poses a threat as a receiver out of the backfield. He combines with Phil Mafah, who has had a nice season spelling him, and Uiagalelei, who is actually the team’s second-leading rusher, to form one of the better rushing attacks in the conference. They will lean on that running game and the tight end duo of Davis Allen and Jake Briningstool to help move the ball because of the lack of consistent weapons at receiver. In the slot, Antonio Williams has had a nice season, but the injury to Beaux Collins that has him sidelined for the season is a major blow and leaves a big hole opposite of Joseph Ngata. The Clemson offensive line is better than the ones that the Tar Heels have faced in recent weeks, but it is still one that struggled a week ago to keep the pressure off Uiagalelei.

Defensively, they might not be as dominant as we thought they could be coming into the season, but the Tigers still have an extremely stout unit. It all starts in the front four, which is not only the best in the conference but one of the best in the entire country. Myles Murphy and K.J. Henry have been consistent forces off the edge and the duo of Tyler Davis and Brian Breese in the middle is as good as it gets. The linebacker trio is a strong one, too, that rivals the one the team faced a week ago. Jeremiah Trotter Jr. is one of the most complete linebackers in the country and Trenton Simpson and Barrett Carter are two tremendous compliments that flank him. The three combine to form what might be the best pass-defending linebackers in the conference. The secondary is the one weak spot that this defense has had and it hasn’t been helped by the injury issues. The team is extremely thin at cornerback, leaving them to trust the trio of Nate Wiggins, Sheridan Jones and Toriano Pride Jr. who have been hit and miss. At safety, both Jalyn Phillps and Andrew Mubaka have been picked on at times and that could be an area that the Tar Heel offense attacks.

The special teams unit is one that Swinney prides himself on and this is another good unit that he has at his disposal. Placekicker B.T. Potter has had another nice season and punter Aidan Swanson has been steady himself. Shipley has looked good when he has returned the football on kick returns and Antonio Williams has done the same on punt returns.

Team Stats

Tar Heels

Off. PPG: 37.1 (15th)

Off. PYPG: 320.9 (8th)

Off. RYPG: 160.0 (61st)

Off. TYPG: 480.9 (11th)

Off. 3rd Down %: 46.5% (21st)

Tackles For A Loss Allowed: 78.0 (T-97th)

Sacks Allowed: 34.0 (T-99th)

Def. PPG: 30.3 (T-103th)

Def. PYPG: 273.0 (118th)

Def. RYPG: 169.7 (91st)

Def. TYPG: 442.7 (117th)

Def. 3rd Down %: 40.7% (88th)

Tackles for A Loss: 45.0 (T-128th)

Sacks: 16.0 (T-123rd)

Interceptions: 8 (T-85th)

Turnover Margin: +2 (T-53rd)

Penalties Per Game: 6.5 (T-80th)

Penalty Yards Per Game: 57.8 (88th)


Off. PPG: 34.3 (27th)

Off. PYPG: 218.0 (84th)

Off. RYPG: 188.3 (39th)

Off. TYPG: 406.3 (53rd)

Off. 3rd Down %: 48.6% (12th)

Tackles For A Loss Allowed: 60.0 (T-46th)

Sacks Allowed: 24.0 (T-64th)

Def. PPG: 20.9 (T-27th)

Def. PYPG: 226.7 (74th)

Def. RYPG: 100.1 (8th)

Def. TYPG: 326.8 (22nd)

Def. 3rd Down %: 34.1% (T-33rd)

Tackles for A Loss: 96.0 (T-5th)

Sacks: 36.0 (T-12th)

Interceptions: 11 (T-37th)

Turnover Margin: -2 (T-81st)

Penalties Per Game: 5.5 (T-43rd)

Penalty Yards Per Game: 48.7 (T-45th)

Injury Report

Tar Heels

OUT- British Brooks (lower leg), Sebastian Cheeks (upper body), Ja’Qurious Conley (lower body), Des Evans (upper body), Caleb Hood (upper body), Jahlil Taylor (lower body), Noah Taylor (lower body), Raymond Vohasek (upper body)

QUEST- Storm Duck (upper body), Tony Grimes (upper body), Cam’Ron Kelly (lower body)

PROB- Giovanni Biggers (undisclosed)


OUT- Beaux Collins (shoulder), Fred Davis II (undisclosed), Justin Foster (undisclosed), Malcolm Greene (groin), Troy Stellato (knee), Marcus Tate (undisclosed), Xavier Thomas (foot), Mason Trotter (undisclosed), Tyler Venables (undisclosed)

QUEST- Will Taylor (knee)

Projected Starting Lineups

Tar Heels Offense

QB#10 Drake Maye, RFr.

RB#21 Elijah Green, So.

WR# 5 J.J. Jones, So.

WR# 3 Antoine Green, Sr.

WR#11 Josh Downs, Jr.

TE#88 Kamari Morales, Jr. OR #18 Bryson Nesbit, So. OR #81 John Copenhaver, So.

LT#72 Asim Richards, Sr.

LG#63 Ed Montilus, Sr.

C#65 Corey Gaynor, Sr.

RG#76 William Barnes, Sr.

RT#75 Spencer Rolland, Sr. Defense

NOSE#98 Kevin Hester Jr., Jr.

3-TECH# 8 Myles Murphy, Jr.

END#25 Kaimon Rucker, Jr.

JACK#17 Chris Collins, Sr.

MIKE#23 Power Echols, So.

ILB#33 Cedric Gray, Jr.

CB# 1 Tony Girmes, Jr.

BS#27 Giovanni Biggers, Sr.

FS# 9 Cam’Ron Kelly, Sr.

CB# 3 Storm Duck, Jr.

STAR#16 DeAndre Boykins, So. Special Teams

K#98 Noah Burnette, So.

KOS#98 Noah Burnette, So.

P#91 Ben Kiernan, Sr.

LS K- #62 Spencer Triplett, So. P- #61 Drew Little, Sr.

H#91 Ben Kiernan, Sr.

KR#23 George Pettaway, Fr.

PR#11 Josh Downs, Jr.

Clemson Offense

QB# 5 D.J. Uiagalelei, Jr.

RB# 1 Will Shipley, So.

WR#10 Joseph Ngata, Sr.

WR# 6 E.J. Williams, Jr. OR #13 Brannon Spector, Jr.

WR# 0 Antonio Williams, Fr.

TE#84 Davis Allen, Sr.

TE# 9 Jake Briningstool, So.

LT#71 Jordan McFadden, Sr.

LG#77 Mitchell Mayes, Jr.

C#56 Will Putnam, Sr.

RG#64 Walker Parks, Jr.

RT#78 Blake Miller, Fr. Defense

DE# 5 K.J. Henry, Sr.

DT#11 Brian Breese, So.

DT#13 Tyler Davis, Sr.

DE#98 Myles Murphy, Jr.

SLB/NB#22 Trenton Simpson, Jr.

MLB#54 Jeremiah Trotter Jr., So. OR #30 Keith Maguire, Jr.

WLB# 0 Barrett Carter, So.

CB# 6 Sheridan Jones, Sr. OR # 1 Andrew Mukuba, So.

SS# 1 Andrew Mukuba, So.

FS#25 Jalyn Phillips, Sr.

CB#20 Nate Wiggins, So. OR # 1 Andrew Mukuba, So. Special Teams

PK#29 B.T. Potter, Sr.

KO#29 B.T. Potter, Sr.

P#39 Aidan Swanson, Jr.

LS K- #45 Phillip Florenzo, So. P- #58 Holden Caspersen, RFr.

H#81 Drew Sinney, Sr.

KR# 1 Will Shipley, So.

PR# 0 Antonio Williams, Fr.

Game Information

Location: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, NC

Time: 8:00 PM


Radio: Tar Heels Sports Network (check local affiliates)


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