The 2019 college football season almost experienced its first undisputed College Football Playoff-impacting result in Week 5 as North Carolina scored a touchdown with 1:17 remaining against No. 1 Clemson, cutting the deficit to 21-20, and Mack Brown elected for his Tar Heels to go for two and the win at home.
They were stopped, their special teams unit whiffed on recovering a great on-side kick and the Tigers were able to take two kneel downs to seal the win on the road.
We dove into the stats to examine what North Carolina did well against the defending national champions and No. 1 team in the country to see what it might take for another ACC foe to knock off Clemson.
The Tar Heels matched the Tigers on a per-carry basis
Ignoring the end-of-game kneel downs and sack yards, Clemson finished the game with 141 rushing yards on 28 carries, while North Carolina ran the ball 33 times for 166 yards.
That’s 5.04 yards per carry for the Tigers and 5.03 yards per carry for the Tar Heels.
Clemson entered Week 5 ranked 20th nationally in rushing yards per game (247 yards/game) and the Tigers have a running back in Travis Etienne who could finish in the top 10 of the Heisman Trophy voting for the second year in a row.
Meanwhile, North Carolina eclipsed its season average for rushing yards per game and averaged roughly 1.2 more yards per carry against the Tigers than the Tar Heels averaged in the first four weeks.
Michael Carter (16 carries for 99 yards) and Javonte Williams (10 carries for 49 yards) shouldered most of the burden on the ground for North Carolina.
The Tar Heels were stuffed for no gain or a loss of yards roughly twice as often as the Tigers – seven times (21.2 percent) compared to Clemson’s three (10.7 percent) – but they were able to produce enough productive runs to win the time of possession battle 31:49 to 28:11.
That’s not an overwhelming advantage and admittedly, time of possession can be a misleading stat, but the less time Clemson’s offense is on the field in a game in which the Tigers spend most of the time trailing or tied, the better it is for their opponent.
North Carolina had 12 rushes of at least five yards in the game.
UNC moved the ball on 1st down, converted on 3rd and 4th
As simplistic as it sounds, North Carolina was productive on first down, then converted at a successful rate on third and fourth down.
Sounds easy enough, right?
Against a Clemson defense that ranked No. 2 in SP+ after Week 4, North Carolina averaged 6.13 yards on first down (compared to Clemson’s 6.33 yards, for perspective) and the Tar Heels converted on 7-of-17 third downs and 2-of-3 fourth down attempts.
North Carolina was often able to stay ahead of schedule, as the saying goes, setting the Tar Heels up for manageable third and fourth down situations.
Seventy percent of North Carolina’s plays on first down resulted in a gain of yards and 45 percent of the time the Tar Heels picked up four or more yards on first down, meaning they then faced 2nd & 6 or better, or picked up another first down.
Almost 17 percent of the Tar Heels’ plays on first down resulted in another first down or a touchdown.
Here’s the complete breakdown of the yards North Carolina gained on first down:
- 10+ yards: 5
- 9 yards: 1
- 8 yards: 1
- 7 yards: 0
- 6 yards: 0
- 5 yards: 0
- 4 yards: 4
- 3 yards: 3
- 2 yards: 2
- 1 yard: 1
- No gain: 4
- Loss of yards: 3
Here’s a look at the distances North Carolina faced on third down:
- 3rd & 1: 3
- 3rd & 2: 2
- 3rd & 3: 1
- 3rd & 4: 0
- 3rd & 5: 1
- 3rd & 6: 3
- 3rd & 7: 0
- 3rd & 8: 0
- 3rd & 9: 2
- 3rd & 10: 0
- 3rd & 11+: 5
Keeping Clemson’s offense off the field
Here’s a breakdown of Clemson and North Carolina’s drives in the game, ignoring the Tar Heels’ one-play possession at the end of the first half and the Tigers’ two kneel downs at the end of the game.
North Carolina forced Clemson to punt on 45 percent of its possessions, including four 3-and-outs.
The Tar Heels held the Tigers to drives of -12, -1, two, five, nine and 14 yards. Sure, Clemson had scoring drives of 90, 78 and 55 yards but North Carolina may have provided future Tiger opponents something of a playbook, or at least a goal, for staying competitive against the country’s No. 1 team: establish the run, limit possessions and keep Clemson’s offense on the sideline as much as possible.
That’s easier said than done but North Carolina proved it’s not impossible.
Roughly a third of Clemson’s offensive snaps (20 out of 59) resulted in no gain or a loss of yards, including 12 that were incomplete passes thrown by Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence.
Six of the Tigers’ 24 plays on first down resulted in no gain or a loss of yards, which means that nearly a quarter of the time on second down, Clemson faced 2nd & 10 or longer.