With a 42-23 lead and 11:34 remaining, Clemson appeared cruising to the College Football Playoff. Ten minutes later, the Tigers had to recover an onside kick to survive a hard-charging North Carolina team. But survive they did, and a 45-37 win over the No. 10 Heels gives No. 1 Clemson its 15th ACC championship and sends the Tigers to their first College Football Playoff — likely as the No. 1 overall seed.
ACC Player of the Year Deshaun Watson made his case for a much larger award, hitting 26-of-42 passes for 289 yards with three touchdowns and one interception while rushing 24 times for 131 yards and two scores.
Clemson scored on three consecutive drives, marching 68, 97 and 36 yards, to turn a 16-14 second quarter deficit into a 35-16 third quarter lead.
Watson’s interception propelled North Carolina to its next score as Marquise Williams capped a 42-yard drive with a one-yard plunge, but the Tigers immediately responded with an 11-play, 80-yard drive, to seemingly put the game away with a 19-point advantage and 11 minutes to protect it.
But North Carolina scored 100 seconds later to pull within 42-30 and, after a Clemson field goal, slashed 49 yards in one minute to claw within 45-37 with 1:13 remaining and all three timeouts in their pocket. The Tar Heels recovered the ensuing onside kick but a phantom offsides call forced a re-kick. Clemson recovered the second kick after the ball touched a number of hands on both sides, and one more first down officially punched the Tigers’ ticket.
Clemson owned the line of scrimmage for the majority of the night, achieving 33 first downs and converting 9-of-18 third downs. The Tigers out-gained UNC 608-382 and held a 319-142 advantage on the ground. Wayne Gallman led all players with 187 yards and a touchdown on 28 carries.
Williams completed 11-of-33 throws for 224 yards with three touchdowns and an interception while rushing 17 times for a team-high 81 yards with a touchdown and a fumble.
North Carolina opened the scoring with a field goal and grabbed a 9-7 first quarter lead on a 40-yard catch-and-run score from Williams to T.J. Logan.
Clemson led 14-9 in the second quarter when punter Andy Teasdall took off on a surprise fake punt on 4th-and-15 in his own territory. He was stopped 11 yards short, and Williams hit Ryan Switzer for a three-yard touchdown to put North Carolina back on top 16-14 with 3:52 remaining in the first half.
But Clemson drove 68 yards for a touchdown with just two seconds remaining in the first half, reclaiming a lead it would not relinquish.