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Heel Tough Blog: Clemson Preview

Bob Donnan- USA Today Sports

The Tar Heels will face their toughest test of the 2023 season on Saturday when they travel on the road to face the Clemson Tigers in Memorial Stadium. Not only would this be a huge win for this year’s team that could keep them alive for the ACC Championship Game, but it would be big for the direction of the program overall. Despite not being Clemson not being ranked, this has the chance to be the biggest win of Mack Brown’s second stint in Chapel Hill.

Team Breakdowns

Tar Heels

The Tar Heels are coming off their wildest win of the season over the Duke Blue Devils and will hope that the thrill of that win can propel them to victory. It all starts with the offense, which is once again one of the best in all of college football. It all starts with the Tar Heel backfield which might be the best in the country. Drake Maye is having another outstanding season and coming off an amazing game a week ago where made every play the team needed him to. He combines with Omarion Hampton, who sits second in the country in rushing yards and scrimmage yards, to form a duo that will give Clemson’s defense their biggest test of the season. Tez Walker and Bryson Nesbit are two more offensive weapons who are playing their best football of the season and it is sorely needed with the rest of the group not playing nearly as well as they were earlier in the season. The team is searching for answers right now in the slot with Nate McCollum struggling and Kohe Paysour hurt and J.J. Jones hasn’t been nearly as consistent as he was in the four games. The offensive line hasn’t been the greatest run-blocking team so far the year, ranking in 98th in yards before contact coming into last week, but it is a group that has allowed far less pressure on Drake Maye than they did a year ago all while having to deal with an ever-changing lineup on the field this season because of injuries. They certainly aren’t the best unit in college football, but they are the average group that this team needs them to be.

The defense has reached the point of being a liability again after such a promising start to the year. The group has a problem with fourth quarters now, as they have allowed 474 yards and 44 points in the final stanza of regulation in the last two games against ACC opponents. The Tar Heel defensive front continues to rush the passer well, especially Kaimon Rucker and Des Evans off the edge, but the group has not been able to win consistently enough in the run game. The interior of the unit needs to be better and are hoping that a really solid performance against Duke is what can spur that group to a strong finish down the stretch of the season. The linebacking corps still has two stalwarts in Cedric Gray and Power Echols, but it is very obvious that these two are getting worn down with both guys playing more than 75 snaps in four of the last five games. The secondary also seems to be getting worn down, primarily the corner group that is lacking depth right now. With both Tayon Holloway and Lejond Cavazos having missed the last two games, the team has had to play their starters almost exclusively leading to fatigue and mistakes. Both Alijah Huzzie and Marcus Allen started the year strong, but have worn down while playing more than 92% of the snaps. The safety spot has done a better job of managing things thanks to better, healthier depth. Stick Lane and Will Hardy have been able to rotate with starters Giovanni Biggers and Don Chapman, which has kept them fresh and allowed them to be very solid for the majority of the season.

The special teams unit remains a disaster. Placekicker Noah Burnette has been phenomenal since taking over for Ryan Coe and Huzzie has handled the punt return duties well, but outside of that it has been nothing but inconsistency. Punter Tom Maginness has been up and down since taking over for Ben Kiernan and the punt coverage unit has already allowed three blocked punts this season. Meanwhile, the kick return unit has had just one significant return and the kick coverage unit has a few too many. The hope at this point is that this unit won’t cost this team a game before this season is over.


A 6-4 record would have you believe that Dabo Swinney's squad is not playing great football which was true of the first eight games of the year, but things have completely shifted in the last two weeks. Wins over Notre Dame and Georgia Tech, motivated by a caller to Swinney’s coaches show, have people feeling like this team will finish the season the way many believe they would play all season. Clemson’s biggest issue early in the season was turnovers, but it has been cleaned up in the last few games and it has allowed Cade Klubnik to settle into a pretty good rhythm. The sophomore quarterback has been aided heavily by a run game that is playing their best football of the season. Phil Mafah has been explosive all year long and has taken over the starting role and combines well with the versatile weapon Will Shipley. The Tigers have had their issues in the past couple of years finding standout receivers, but they seem to have one in the form of true freshman slot receiver Tyler Brown, who has shown the ability to take over the game as he did against Florida State and Syracuse. Beaux Collins has been the most steady producer and will be the focus on the outside and Jake Briningstool will be the most productive tight end that the Tar Heel defense has faced so far this year. The offensive line is far from this team’s strong suit and is comparable to the Tar Heel offensive line group in a lot of ways and it is gettable.

The Clemson defense is easily the best that the Tar Heels will face this season and ranks amongst the best in the country. The defensive line goes two deep with NFL talent led by Tyler Davis and Ruke Orhorhoro in the middle and a bevy of edge rushers that have made life hell for opposing quarterbacks. The linebacker room is loaded led by Jeremiah Trotter Jr., who might be the best linebacker in the entire country. Barrett Carter is having another strong season, but is questionable for this game with an ankle injury, while Wade Woodaz will be good to go and makes this one of the best trios in college football right now. The secondary has made major strides from last season thanks to much better play from the team’s starting corners, veteran Nate Wiggins and true freshman Aveion Terrell. Slot corner Khalil Barnes, another true freshman, has also had a really solid season as the starter in the nickel.

The special teams unit is a very sound unit. Punter Aidan Swanson has had a nice year and the punt return game has been productive no matter who has been out there. The kick return game hasn’t blown anyone away, but is certainly still capable of hurting you if you are not careful. The placekicker is the biggest weakness, as they’ve connected on just 50% of their field goals this season.

Team Stats

Tar Heels

Off. PPG: 39.9 (8th)

Off. PYPG: 321.9 (8th)

Off. RYPG: 198.7 (18th)

Off. TYPG: 520.6 (3rd)

Off. 3rd Down %: 51.7%

Tackles For A Loss Allowed: 55.0 (T-61st)

Sacks Allowed: 24.0 (T-87th)

Def. PPG: 25.5 (61st)

Def. PYPG: 235.5 (84th)

Def. RYPG: 154.0 (79th)

Def. TYPG: 389.5 (82nd)

Def. 3rd Down %: 39.0% (68th)

Tackles for A Loss: 58.0 (T-65th)

Sacks: 26.0 (T-33rd)

Interceptions: 12 (T-10th)

Turnover Margin: +11 (T-3rd)

Penalties Per Game: 6.6 (T-93rd)

Penalty Yards Per Game: 62.8 (T-114th)


Off. PPG: 30.3 (46th)

Off. PYPG: 238.6 (57th)

Off. RYPG: 169.7 (T-49th)

Off. TYPG: 408.3 (49th)

Off. 3rd Down %: 42.2% (45th)

Tackles For A Loss Allowed: 64.0 (T-92nd)

Sacks Allowed: 19.0 (T-57th)

Def. PPG: 21.2 (T-41st)

Def. PYPG: 162.5 (T-7th)

Def. RYPG: 109.3 (20th)

Def. TYPG: 271.8 (T-5th)

Def. 3rd Down %: 33.6% (27th)

Tackles for Loss: 78.0 (12th)

Sacks: 24.0 (T-47th)

Interceptions: 12 (T-10th)

Turnover Margin: +1 (T-56th)

Penalties Per Game: 4.5 (T-12th)

Penalty Yards Per Game: 42.0 (T-22nd)

Keys to the Game

Hold Your Own on the Line of Scrimmage

This was one of our keys last week and the team more than did that. This week, it will be a much more difficult task. The Tar Heel offensive line needs to battle to a stalemate at the least against Clemson’s outstanding defensive line so they can move the ball and put points on the board. The defensive line has a chance to win the line of scrimmage against this less than stellar Clemson offensive line and they need to if they want to be able to make enough stops to win the game.

Get Off to a Strong Start

Normally this season, we have wanted to see this team jump up to an early lead, but in this case a good start just means sticking around long enough to have a fighting chance. The Tar Heels are walking into one of the most difficult plays to win a game in the entire country and getting behind two scores early would all solidify this result early. If the Tar Heels can weather the storm and maybe get an early score on the board, it could position them to make this a battle.

Create Turnovers

Forcing turnovers has been the key to beating Clemson this season and is probably the most important thing that the Tar Heels have to do to leave with a win. The Tigers have turned the ball over 18 times this season, including at least once in every game so the opportunities should be there for this Tar Heel defense. Hopefully there is some aggression from Gene Chizik and these defensive players to try to create a few in this one and set the team up with a chance to pull the upset late.

Injury Report

Tar Heels

OUT- DeAndre Boykins (lower body), Jacolbe Cowan (lower body), Elijah Green (redshirt), Malaki Hamrick (lower body), Ben Kiernan (lower body), Kobe Paysour (lower body), George Pettaway (redshirt), Julien Randolph (lower body)

QUEST- Lejond Cavazos (undisclosed), Ryan Coe (lower body), Tayon Holloway (undisclosed)


OUT- Vic Burley (knee), Sherrod Covil Jr. (knee), Sage Ennis (knee), Jay Haynes (ankle), Minsun Kelly (redshirt), Walker Parks (lower body), Jalyn Phillips (undisclosed), Cole Turner (hip), Antonio Williams (toe)

QUEST- Barrett Carter (ankle), Sheridan Jones (undisclosed), Justin Mascoll (concussion), Brannon Spector (undisclosed), Marcus Tate (undisclosed)

PROB- Tyler Venables (hip)

Game Information

Location: Memorial Stadium, Clemson, SC

Time: 3:30 PM


Radio: Tar Heel Sports Network (check local affiliates)

@JonesAngell- Twitter

1 Comment

Brandon Griffin
Brandon Griffin
Nov 18, 2023

UNC still has a chance at the ACC title game, must beat clemson and state obviously, but also need wins by Miami (most important), State (frustratingly so) and Syracuse...State losing is the only one of those three that still gives us a chance but then we dont control our own destiny

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