No. 10 Clemson handles No. 24 UNC with ease in ACC title victory

The Tigers have won the conference championship in six of the past seven seasons

Clemson quarterback Cade Klubnik celebrates after his touchdown with offensive lineman Mitchell Mayes in the Tigers' win over UNC on Saturday in the ACC Championship Game in Charlotte. (Jacob Kupferman / AP Photo)

CHARLOTTE — Falling short of an ACC Championship Game appearance last year after six consecutive title game wins, the Clemson Tigers returned to their throne on Saturday night by knocking off UNC in a 39-10 blowout at Bank of America Stadium.

With the victory, the No. 10 Tigers (11-2) finished the season undefeated against ACC opponents, bouncing back from last weekend’s 31-30 loss to rival No. 20 South Carolina that ended the team’s 40-game home winning streak.

For the No. 24 Tar Heels (9-4), their first appearance in the title game since 2015 (an eight-point loss to the Tigers) became their third straight loss this season after falling to NC State and Georgia Tech the past few weeks.

UNC freshman quarterback Drake Maye — the recently awarded 2022 ACC Football Player of the Year — struck first in the game to put the Tar Heels on the board, but that would serve as the team’s only lead of the night as the Tigers quickly roared back.

It was Clemson’s quarterback that changed the complexion of the game.

After just two drives, Tigers coach Dabo Swinney benched starting quarterback DJ Uiagalelei in favor of backup Cade Klubnik.

The true freshman immediately drove down the field and threw a touchdown to tight end Davis Allen — the first of three straight scoring drives. Clemson running back Phil Mafah then scored on a 4-yard touchdown run, and Klubnik ran a touchdown in himself on the Tigers’ next drive to go up 21-7.

“Things have to happen the way they’re supposed to happen,” Swinney said after the game. “Cade, man, he was ready. You got a chance to see what he can do. He played in rhythm. It was a great night and a glimpse of what the future of Clemson football looks like.”

Klubnik was efficient and effective in his championship-winning performance, completing 20 of 24 passes for 279 yards while also leading the Tigers with 30 rushing yards and likely solidifying his spot as Clemson’s starting quarterback in their bowl appearance later this month. The Tigers are currently projected to face No. 7 Tennessee (10-2) in the Orange Bowl on Dec. 30.

Clemson cornerback Nate Wiggins starred for the Tigers on defense and special teams, blocking a field goal, breaking up two passes in the end zone, and scoring on a 98-yard pick-six that put the Tigers up 32-10 after a successful two-point conversion.

That interception by Maye continued the quarterback’s recent struggles in an otherwise stellar freshman season.

“We had two turnovers that led to 14 points — one at the 24-yard line and one that was an interception for a touchdown. You’re not going to beat a good team with those circumstances,” UNC coach Mack Brown said. “We played one of the best teams in the country, and if they hadn’t lost by one point last week, they would be in the final four. It shows you where we are and where we’re making progress, but it also shows you what we’ve got to do to get better.”

Although he scored a touchdown in the third quarter, Clemson running back Will Shipley finished with just 18 rushing yards overall.

The bulk of the Tigers’ offense was in the passing game with 13 different receivers catching passes. Cole Turner finished with 101 receiving yards, while Joseph Ngata and Antonio Williams had 46 and 40 yards, respectively.

UNC wideout Josh Downs led his team with 100 yards and 11 catches, and running back Elijah Green totaled 65 rushing yards.