If there were any doubts about the quality of the Clemson football team, there should be none today.
Playing before 53,611 mostly blue-clad spectators in Kenan Stadium, the second-ranked Tigers survived critical errors that might have beaten a lesser team and defeated North Carolina, 10-8, in a defensive struggle.
There was only one touchdown: Clemson tailback Jeff McCall's seven-yard run at the end of an 81-yard, 14-play drive in the second quarter. But in the end, Clemson's defense, its strength all season, made the difference.
"All we wanted to do was set things up so it would be up to our defense to win the game in the fourth quarter," Clemson Coach Danny Ford said. "I couldn't be prouder of the way our team hung in. We needed everything we had to win this game."
Clemson (9-0) reportedly is close to making a deal to play in the Orange Bowl, contingent on beating Maryland Saturday. The Tigers are 5-0 in the ACC and must beat the Terrapins to win the league title. North Carolina (7-2, 3-1) will drop from its No. 9 ranking and is out of contention for a major bowl appearance.
Three plays -- a quarterback sack, a missed open receiver and a fumbled lateral, all with Carolina in possession -- decided this game. The last came with 1:06 to play and Carolina at its 40 with a first down. The Tar Heels had moved there after Dale Hatcher's punt had pinned them at their two with 2:19 left.
The next play was supposed to be a flare-screen with quarterback Scott Stankavage throwing to fullback Alan Burruss. Carolina had used the play as its first play of the game and Stankavage had been sacked.
This time, he wasn't as lucky. As he dropped back to pass, Stankavage saw defensive end Bill Smith moving with Burruss. "I thought if I go back further by the time I get the ball to Alan, the end (Smith) will be there," Stankavage said. "I rushed it a little, threw it before I wanted to."
Because he did not drop back as far as he was supposed to, Stankavage ended up throwing the ball backward to Burruss. The ball went between Burruss' hands and was ruled a lateral, and a live ball.
"I thought I saw somebody get a good hit on the quarterback," Clemson tackle Jeff Bryant said. "When he threw the ball, I thought, 'That's a fumble, I think.' I just decided I'd jump on it and see what happened."
Clemson got the ball and the Tigers took over on the Carolina 25 and ran out the final 57 seconds.
This was a game of lost opportunities.
Carolina scored first, early in the second quarter, but missed a chance to do serious damage. With Carolina quarterback Rod Elkins in for one of the three series he played before re-injuring his ankle, the Tar Heels moved from their 31 to first and goal at the seven.
But on the next play, Elkins rolled left and did not see tight end Doug Sickels alone in the corner of the end zone. Elkins was sacked for a loss of seven. Clemson held at the five and Brooks Barwick kicked a 22-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead with 12:44 left in the half.
The ensuing series was easily the best of the day. Beginning at the 19, Tiger quarterback Homer Jordan (seven out of 10 for 83 yards) got some passing time for one of the few times all day and took advantage.
The key play came on third and five at midfield. Jordan saw that Carolina had correctly anticipated a sweep, but he also knew there would be one-on-one coverage on all-ACC wide receiver Perry Tuttle. Immediately, Jordan checked off to a slant-in pass to Tuttle.
Tuttle never heard the check-off. "There was too much noise, I couldn't hear him," Tuttle said. "But I knew when they were in man, Homer would check off. So I just ran the slant."
He ran it, Jordan threw it, and the play was good for 16 yards and the first down. From there, the Clemson line did the rest of the work. Four running plays, all off the right side behind tackle Lee Nanney and guard Brian Clark, culminated in McCall's run to make it 7-3 with 6:54 left in the half.
Carolina got two points back with 14 seconds left in the half after Dale Hatcher had to punt from the 15. The Tar Heels rushed 11 men and when Scott Williams snapped the ball high, Hatcher had no chance and Danny Barlow blocked the ball out of the end zone to make it 7-5 at intermission.
Clemson made it 10-5 when Donald Igwebuike kicked a field goal from 39 yards with 6:53 left in the third quarter. Then, Carolina put together its best drive of the day, beginning at its 12 and moving to a first down at the Clemson four.
Out came running back Tyrone Anthony, in came Kelvin Bryant, who gained only 31 yards on 13 carries in his first game since injuring a knee six weeks ago. Seeing Bryant come in, Davis, the defensive captain, turned to his teammates and said, "Here comes the sweep."
Sure enough, here came the sweep and Bryant lost five yards. Two incomplete passes later, Barwick's 26-yard field goal made it 10-8.
That set up the fourth quarter just as Ford wanted it: the outcome riding on his defense, which has allowed 7.8 points a game.
Carolina had its chances. First, Dwight Parrish recovered a punt fumbled by Billy Davis at the Clemson 37 with 10:43 left. On second and six at the 33, Clemson middle guard William Perry, the 6-3, 300-pound freshman nicknamed "Refrigerator" by his teammates, tackled Bryant for no gain.
On the next play, Perry sacked Stankavage for a loss of 11, taking the ball out of field goal range.
Carolina moved to the Clemson 41 on the next series, but on fourth down, Stankavage overthrew wide-open Jon Richardson. The Tigers then moved to the UNC 49 and Hatcher punted to the two to set up the finish.
As they left the field, all the Clemson players -- naturally -- put one finger in the air and screamed: "We're No. 1."
Well actually, No. 2. No doubt about it.