Cade Klubnik gave No. 9 Clemson’s offense a spark in a relief role as the Tigers won another Atlantic Coast Conference championship by defeating No. 23 North Carolina 39-10 on Saturday night at Charlotte, N.C.
Nate Wiggins returned an interception 98 yards for a touchdown for the Tigers, who claimed their 20th ACC title, including seven in an eight-year span.
“It’s a blessing to be here,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “Seven out of eight years, I’m happy for our fans. We don’t take it for granted. We’re not entitled to be here. … But tonight was our night.”
Clemson (11-2), whose 31-30 home loss to rival South Carolina a week earlier doused its College Football Playoff hopes, will be headed to the Orange Bowl.
North Carolina (9-4), which lost its third game in a row, was aiming for its first ACC championship since 1980.
Klubnik, a freshman, completed 20 of 24 passes for 279 yards and a touchdown. He rushed for a team-high 30 yards on seven carries.
“We hoped DJ would start out well and he didn’t. Cade came in and did a great job,” Swinney said. “We would not be here without DJ. We wouldn’t have won the ACC championship without Cade.”
North Carolina quarterback Drake Maye, playing in his hometown, went 26-for-42 for 268 yards and two interceptions.
The Tar Heels were in position to close the gap midway through the third quarter. But Maye’s third-and-goal pass was picked off by Wiggins, who ran it back for a touchdown. Drew Swinney, son of coach Swinney and holder on kicks, ran in the two-point conversion.
That made it 32-10 instead of a one-possession margin. Will Shipley’s 2-yard touchdown run capped the scoring.
Tigers receiver Cole Turner, who had one catch entering the season, made three receptions for 101 yards. He became Clemson’s first player this season to reach 100 receiving yards.
Klubnik entered on Clemson’s third possession and the Tigers marched 71 yards on nine plays. Klubnik’s 1-yard toss to Davis Allen gave the Tigers their first points and tied the game at 7-7.
Two plays later, a North Carolina fumble set up Clemson at the 23-yard line. Phil Mafah’s 4-yard run put the Tigers in the lead.
Wiggins made one of his first big plays by blocking Noah Burnette’s 31-yard field goal attempt at the end of North Carolina’s 17-play drive. Clemson converted by moving 84 yards on five plays, capped by Klubnik’s 1-yard touchdown run.
North Carolina bounced back and scored on Burnette’s 26-yard field goal with 1:20 to play in the half. But Clemson didn’t back off, making it 24-10 at halftime on B.T. Potter’s 52-yarder on the last play of the half.
Clemson starting quarterback DJ Uiagalelei completed 2 of 5 passes for 10 yards. The Tigers didn’t pick up a first down with him taking snaps.
“We have such a tight group,” Klubnik said. “Me and DJ have such an amazing relationship. I’m just happy for the role model he has been to me. So excited for these guys and so excited for these seniors. To go out with a ring in an ACC championship means a lot.”
North Carolina scored on its first possession by driving 78 yards and scoring on Maye’s 3-yard run.
North Carolina’s only previous appearance in the ACC championship game came in a 45-37 loss to Clemson in 2015.
–Field Level Media