CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — The Clemson Tigers are back in a familiar spot — atop the Atlantic Coast Conference.
And they may have found a quarterback to keep them there.
Freshman Cade Klubnik came off the bench to complete 20 of 24 passes for 279 yards and a touchdown and ran for a score to lead No. 10 Clemson to the ACC championship with a 39-10 victory over No. 24 North Carolina on Saturday night.
Cornerback Nate Wiggins broke up two passes in the end zone, blocked a field goal and returned an interception 98 yards for a touchdown as the Tigers won their seventh ACC title in eight seasons.
Clemson (11-2, No. 9 CFP) won six straight ACC championships from 2015 to 2020 before failing to reach the title game last season. But coach Dabo Swinney’s Tigers rebounded in a big way, going 9-0 against ACC foes.
“You got a glimpse of our future at Clemson,” Swinney said about Klubnik. “I’m excited to see him continue to build on it and gain momentum going into next year.”
Swinney said Klubnik will start in the upcoming Orange Bowl.
With Clemson down 7-0, Swinney benched two-year starter DJ Uiagalelei after the Tigers failed to pick up a first down on their first two possessions, Swinney turned to Klubnik, a 5-star recruit from Austin, Texas. He responded by leading the Tigers to four straight scores and a 24-10 lead at halftime. Clemson stretched it to 39-10 heading into the fourth quarter.
Swinney said he informed Klubnik on Sunday that he planned to put him in the game in the third series regardless of what happened.
That surprised North Carolina coach Mack Brown, who said he didn’t expect Clemson to switch QBs mid-game and it threw his team off. UNC had planned to stack the box and make Uiagalelei beat them through the air.
“Cade had played very little all year and when he went into play against Notre Dame he threw an interception, so we totally thought we would see DJ because they hadn’t changed all year,” Brown said.
“They told me to prepare every week like you are going to play and that has been my mindset,” Klubnik said. “I have learned so much and this week I was able to dial it in.”
But it wasn’t the first time Swinney called Klubnik’s number.
He benched Uiagalelei in the second half against Syracuse and Klubnik responded by leading the Tigers to a come-from-behind 27-21 victory. Swinney also turned to Klubnik against Notre Dame, although the results were the opposite with the freshman throwing a Pick 6 in a 35-14 loss.
Klubnik had completed 11 of 22 passes for 98 yards coming into the game.
But Swinney has never been shy about replacing veteran QBs with less experienced players in key situations. He did it in 2014, sitting Cole Stoudt for Deshaun Watson, and again in 2018 replacing Kelly Bryant with Trevor Lawrence.
ACC player of the year Drake Maye was limited to 268 yards passing and turned the ball over three times for North Carolina (9-4, No. 23 CFP), which was seeking its first ACC championship since 1980 when Lawrence Taylor was wreaking havoc on quarterbacks.
Maye got things started on the right foot for the Tar Heels, capping an 11-play, 78-yard drive with a 3-yard touchdown run for a 7-0 lead on UNC’s first possession.
But the Tar Heels repeatedly sputtered on offense inside the red zone after that, the biggest blow coming when Maye misfired near the goal line and Wiggins — who had struggled in Clemson’s 51-45 win over Wake Forest — returned his errant pass for a touchdown to give Clemson a 32-10 lead with 5:05 left in the third quarter.
“He threw it right to me,” Wiggins said. “I was thinking, ‘ain’t nobody catching me. I’ve got to get to the end zone.’ I felt like today was my day.”
Said Maye: “We were moving the ball all night and we’d get to the red zone and we’d have a stall and a stop in the road. It starts with me. I’ve got to make better decisions.”
North Carolina: Maye garnered plenty of Heisman Trophy talk during the season, but the offense has stalled resulting in a three-game losing streak. But as long as Maye doesn’t transfer — and there are no indications he will given his family history at North Carolina — the Tar Heels have a good chance to get back to the ACC title game next season.
Clemson: The Tigers have set a high bar by winning national championships, so as much as they will enjoy getting back atop the ACC mountain there will be plenty of talk over whether Swinney cost his team a chance at a spot in the College Football Playoff by not turning to Klubnik at quarterback earlier in the season. It seems Uiagalelei might be a logical transfer portal candidate. “He has a bright future as a football player,” Swinney said. “These guys love DJ and I do too.”
Clemson will play in the Orange Bowl, while North Carolina awaits a bowl bid.