With quarterback DJ Uiagalelei playing inconsistently for much of the season, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney mocked the idea of a changeover when the idea was brought up by the media.
But after the Tigers’ first possession of the ACC title game against North Carolina resulted in a total of seven rushing yards and two punts, Sweeney did just that.
He removed veteran Uiagalelei in favor of freshman Cade Klubnik. Klopnik provided an instant spark on offense and led Clemson to its seventh ACC title in eight seasons.
In the 39-10 victory, Klopnik threw for 279 yards on 20-of-24 passes, rushed for 30 yards and collected two touchdowns.
Amidst its slow start with Uiagagelei at quarterback, Clemson fell behind 7-0 and looked lifeless—until Klubnik came to the rescue.
Clemson marched down the field and tied the score for Klopnick’s first series on the field. And after UNC fumbled, Clemson quickly took a 14-7 lead with 35 seconds remaining in the first quarter.
On Clemson’s ensuing possession, Klopnik connected with Cole Turner on a terrific deep ball down the left sideline for a 68-yard gain, setting him up for a one-yard rushing score.
Clemson then added to the lead with a field goal before halftime, turning that early 7-0 deficit into a 24-10 halftime lead.
In the second half the defense took over. UNC, led by its star freshman quarterback, Drake May, drove deep into Clemson territory in the third quarter. But May made a huge mistake, throwing the ball into the crowd into the goal and third. Nate Wiggins caught the wrong pass and returned it 98 yards for a touchdown.
That defensive touchdown added to a lead that was too big to beat as the Tigers completely dominated play in the second half on their way to a huge victory.
While returning to the top of the ACC after failing last year is something Clemson will celebrate, it’s hard not to wonder what cap this Clemson team might have had Sweeney switch quarterbacks at some point during the regular season.
Uiagalelei struggled mightily in 2021 as Clemson lost three regular season games for the first time since 2014. With Klopnik, a five-star recruit from Texas, joining the roster, many wondered if the younger QB would be in a position to pass Uiagalelei In the depth chart – much like Trevor Lawrence did with Kelly Bryant a few years ago.
But this never materialized as Clemson continued to win games. Clemson started the year 8-0 and ranked #4 nationally when Notre Dame entered on November 5 and was beaten 35-14. Uiagalelei played poorly in the game, but he wasn’t the only problem because Clemson’s vaunted defensive line was overwhelmed by the Fighting Irish.
At 8-1, Clemson was still in the national title picture and stayed in it by rebounding with wins over Louisville and Miami. At 10-1, wins over rival South Carolina in the regular season finale and UNC in the ACC title game would have put the Tigers firmly in the mix for a CFP berth.
But South Carolina changed those plans with A 31-30 victory in Clemson, destroys Clemson’s CFP hopes. Uiagalelei only went 8 of 29 for 99 yards in the loss. It wasn’t pretty.
On Saturday night, Clemson’s offense looked even crisper when Klopnik ran the show. North Carolina’s defense makes a lot of offense look good, but Clemson fans will still wonder what it might have been if Sweeney turned things around at some point during the season.
Instead of waiting for his opponent in the Orange Bowl, Clemson could have spent Sunday waiting to see if he landed in the College Football Playoff.
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