Chapel Hill, N.C. — The ball sat on the 3-yard line, forcing top-ranked Clemson into the most unexpected of positions.
Get a stop, or lose the lead late against heavy underdog North Carolina — and maybe the game along with its spot as the front-runner for the College Football Playoff.
The Tigers did it, stuffing the Tar Heels’ 2-point conversion attempt with 1:17 left to hold on for a 21-20 victory — narrowly avoiding an upset that would’ve shaken the national landscape in college football.
“It came down to one play, that’s what happens a lot of times,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “We made the play we had to make to win the game.”
The Tigers (5-0, 3-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) had trouble all day in trying to extend earn a program-record 20th straight win. They didn’t go ahead for good until Trevor Lawrence hit Tee Higgins on a 38-yard touchdown pass with 9:54 left, then came up with the stop after the Tar Heels went for the lead instead of a tie after Javonte Williams’ short scoring run.
The Tigers strung out Sam Howell’s option run to the right, with Xavier Thomas, James Skalski and Nolan Turner combining to bring down Howell as he turned toward the goal line.
Howell tried to pitch the ball back to Dazz Newsome as he was going down, but Newsome had nowhere to go near the sideline and was pushed out of bounds to put the Tar Heels (2-3, 1-1) short and effectively clinch the win for Clemson — though it was far tougher than expected for the 27-point road favorite on what Swinney called “a tough day at the office, no doubt.”
“I’d probably say they probably outplayed us,” Swinney said. “We made a lot of mistakes, a lot of critical, critical errors at critical times. But when we had to make a play, we made it. That’s what winners do.”
The Tar Heels certainly gave themselves a shot, jumping on Clemson with a game-opening TD drive for a 7-0 lead — the Tigers largest deficit of the season — and holding the Tigers to a season-low 331 total yards.
It was Clemson’s lowest point total of its 20-game winning streak, which includes last year’s 15-0 run to a fourth straight ACC title and second national championship in three seasons.
Yet the Tar Heels fell to 0-11 against No. 1-ranked teams in The Associated Press college football poll.
“I told the players that we’re not into moral victories,” UNC coach Mack Brown said. “That can’t happen, because you’ve got to learn to win. I told them in my 31 years of coaching, I’ve never been prouder of their effort, because if I’m a reflection of the way those guys fought tonight, then I’m very, very proud of that.”
More Top 25
(At) No. 2 Alabama 59, Mississippi 31: Tua Tagovailoa and DeVonta Smith hooked up for five touchdown passes and a few school records in Alabama’s victory over Mississippi.
The Crimson Tide (5-0, 2-0 Southeastern Conference) actually trailed for the first time this season before flexing its muscles against the 37½-point underdogs. The Rebels (2-3, 1-1) couldn’t even slow down Smith, who sometimes gets overshadowed in a loaded receiving group.
Smith had 11 catches for school records of 274 yards and five TDs, all by early in the third quarter. He had 221 yards by halftime, and added a 27-yard score to punctuate the biggest game of any Tide receiver.
Tagovailoa passed for a school-record six touchdowns and rushed for a seventh. He had matched the record of five TD passes in two straight games but finally eclipsed it in the fourth quarter. He completed 26 of 36 passes for 418 yards.
(At) No. 6 Oklahoma 55, Texas Tech 16: Jalen Hurts passed for a career-high 415 yards and threw three touchdown passes in Oklahoma’s victory over Texas Tech.
Hurts also ran for 70 yards and another score for the Sooners (4-0, 1-0 Big 12). The senior transfer from Alabama had 485 yards of total offense, the eighth-most in school history.
CeeDee Lamb had career highs of 185 yards receiving and three touchdowns, Charleston Rambo had 122 yards receiving on just two catches and Trey Sermon ran for 76 yards and two scores.
The Sooners, who entered the game leading the nation in total offense, gained 642 yards. They have totaled at least 600 yards in each game this season.
Jett Duffey passed for 120 yards and SaRodorick Thompson ran for 96 yards for Texas Tech (2-2, 0-1).
(At) No. 7 Auburn 56, Mississippi State 23: Seth Williams had eight receptions for 161 yards and two touchdowns, JaTarvious Whitlow ran for three scores and Bo Nix had his best game in an Auburn uniform.
Auburn (5-0, 2-0 SEC) started fast, scoring three touchdowns on its first eight plays from scrimmage. It was aided by five Miss State penalties and a fumbled kickoff in the first five minutes that resulted in short fields.
Whitlow galloped for a 30-yard score on Auburn’s first play. After the Tigers stifled Tommy Stevens and the Miss State offense for minus-22 yards on their first two possessions, Nix and receiver Anthony Schwartz added red-zone rushing touchdowns for a 21-0 lead. Save for a lost fumble by Williams with 4:30 left in the second quarter, Auburn scored a touchdown on every possession in the first half.
Penn State transfer Stevens earned the nod at quarterback for the Bulldogs (3-2, 1-1), but Garrett Shrader took over in the first quarter after Stevens sustained an injury on a big hit.
(At) No. 9 Florida 38, Towson 0: Kyle Trask threw for two touchdowns and ran for another, helping Florida beat lower-division Towson for its ninth straight victory.
Trask completed 15 consecutive passes to open the game, giving him 18 straight completions and breaking Chris Leak’s mark (17) set against Wyoming in 2005.
Trask’s hot streak ended with an incompletion to Jacob Copeland early in the third quarter. He responded with a perfect throw to Kyle Pitts in the corner of the end zone for his second TD pass of the afternoon.
Trask finished 18 of 20 for 188 yards for the Gators (5-0). Towson dropped to 2-3.
(At) No. 10 Notre Dame 35, No. 18 Virginia 20: Julian Okwara had three sacks of Notre Dame’s eight sacks and caused a fumble that was returned for a touchdown as the Fighting Irish overcame a halftime deficit to beat Virginia.
The Fighting Irish (3-1), coming off a 23-14 loss at No. 3 Georgia, trailed 17-14 at the break and then had the Cavaliers (4-1) complete a successful onside kick to open the second half. The Notre Dame defense held, setting the tone for the second half.
Jamir Jones started the Irish defensive onslaught in the third quarter when he sacked and stripped Virginia’s Bryce Perkins of the football and defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa recovered it in midair before rumbling 48 yards to the Virginia 7.
Tony Jones, who had three touchdowns and a season-high 131 yards on 18 carries, scored two plays later from the 2 to give the Irish a 21-17.
(At) No. 17 Washington 28, No. 14 USC 14: Salvon Ahmed rushed for a career-high 153 yards, including an 89-yard touchdown run in the third quarter for Washington.
Ahmed missed last week's win at BYU with a leg injury. But he was back in a big way against the Trojans, breaking off the longest run play for Washington (4-1, 1-1 Pac-12) in 25 years and moments after USC quarterback Matt Fink made his biggest mistake of the day.
With USC (3-2, 2-1) trailing 20-7 and driving, Fink failed to see Elijah Molden dropping into a zone and had a pass intercepted at the Washington 1 as he tried to hit Michael Pittman Jr. Two plays later, Ahmed waited for the hole to open then burst into the open field and ran away from the defense. It was Washington's longest run play since a 91-yard TD run by Napoleon Kaufman in 1994 against San Jose State.
(At) No. 19 Utah 38, Washington State 13: Tyler Huntley passed for two touchdowns and ran for two more, powering Utah in the rain.
Huntley completed 21 of 30 passes for 334 yards. He didn't attempt a pass in the fourth quarter as Utah (4-1 overall, 1-1 Pac-12) went conservative to claim its first win against the Cougars since 2012.
After becoming the first WSU quarterback to top 400 yards passing in his first four starts, Anthony Gordon threw for 229 yards but had two interceptions, including Francis Bernard's pick with 5:26 to play.
(At) No. 22 UCF 56, Connecticut 21: Dillon Gabriel threw for 281 yards and three touchdowns to help UCF rebound from its first regular-season loss in nearly three years with a rout of Connecticut to begin American Athletic Conference play.
The two-time defending AAC champions improved to 29-2 since the start of 2017, bouncing back from a 35-34 loss at Pittsburgh that stopped a league- and school-record 25-game regular-season win streak.
Gabriel completed 11 of 16 passes without an interception for UCF, and he threw TD passes of 73, 16 and 13 yards to Gabriel Davis while UCF (4-1, 1-0) built a 42-0 halftime lead.
UConn (1-3, 0-1) fell to 0-7 in ACC openers and has lost 12 consecutive conference games.
No. 23 Texas A&M 31, Arkansas 27: Quartney Davis caught two of Kellen Mond’s three touchdown passes, including the go-ahead score Texas A&M.
After Mond’s pass was picked off in the end zone, the Razorbacks failed to get a first down and punted after Ben Hicks was sacked at the 2. That set up the short drive for Mond’s 3-yard TD pass to Davis with 12:21 left that put Texas A&M (3-2, 1-1 Southeastern Conference) ahead 28-24.
The Razorbacks (2-3, 0-2) lost their 13th consecutive SEC game, including all 10 under second-year coach Chad Morris. They have lost eight in a row against Texas A&M since the Aggies left the Big 12.
(At) Oklahoma State 26, No. 24 Kansas State 13: Chuba Hubbard ran for 296 yards and a touchdown on just 25 carries, and Oklahoma State shut down No. 24 Kansas State’s own vaunted rushing attack in a weather-delayed 26-13 victory Saturday night.
Hubbard hardly carried at all in the first quarter for the Cowboys (4-1, 1-1 Big 12), who built a 13-0 lead when the game was halted more than an hour in the second quarter due to lightning. But the breakout star finished with runs of 53, 84 and 44 yards in his dominant performance.
Spencer Sanders added 153 yards passing and a touchdown for Oklahoma State. Most of that went to Tylan Wallace, who hauled in eight passes for 145 yards.
Skylar Thompson was 11 of 23 for 118 yards for the Wildcats (3-1, 0-1), who were coming off a bye following their big win at Mississippi State. But any momentum they gained from their foray into SEC country was wiped out by their return to the Big 12.