Clemson North Carolina Football

Clemson's James Skalski (47) and his teammates pummel North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell on the Tar Heels' 2-point conversion attempt in the final minutes of Saturday's game. Chris Seward/AP

CLEMSON — It was 2014, and Northgate High needed a 2-point conversion to win the game. 

Enter James Skalski. The future Clemson linebacker, then a high school junior in Newnan, Ga., made the game-winning catch and rejoiced. Northgate was victorious. 

So when the Tigers defense lined up late in Saturday's game at North Carolina with the Tar Heels set to attempt a go-ahead, 2-point conversion, Skalski understood the urgency of the moment more than most. 

"When you get to be part of a moment like that, it's always special," Skalski said.


Clemson linebacker James Skalski.

Saturday was no different. With then-No. 1 Clemson leading by 1, Tar Heels quarterback Sam Howell faked a handoff and kept the ball himself, rolling right toward the end zone. Skalski and his teammates were ready. 

Skalski tracked Howell's path, gang tackling him along with defensive end Xavier Thomas and safety Nolan Turner. Howell pitched the ball to North Carolina wide receiver Dazz Newsome, who was brought down by linebacker Chad Smith.

It was a high-pressure moment for Clemson in a season previously void of them. And the Tigers passed the test, earning the 21-20 win.

"That's what you do it for. That's what you grow up daydreaming about," Skalski said. "You just stay calm and trust the work you've put in."

That's easier said than done. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables had urged his unit that "adversity is coming," leading into the Week 5 matchup. But Clemson had outscored its previous opponents by a combined score of 169-40. Adversity was in short supply.

But then North Carolina found the end zone first Saturday, and after Clemson tied the game at 7, the Tar Heels scored a touchdown again. The game was tied at 14 after three quarters, setting the stage for a more dramatic finish than most anticipated.

Clemson scored on its first possession of the fourth, when quarterback Trevor Lawrence found wide receiver Tee Higgins for a 38-yard score to put the Tigers up 21-14.

North Carolina rose to the moment. They converted a pair of fourth-down attempts on their ensuing possession, defying what had been a dominant Clemson defense in similar situations so far this season; the Tigers' first four opponents were a combined 2 for 8 on fourth down. Coach Dabo Swinney said he anticipated the Tar Heels would go for the win if they scored. Indeed, after running back Javonte Williams rushed for a 1-yard touchdown, North Carolina burned a timeout. Then the Tar Heels' offense trotted back onto the field.

"Brent said we're probably going to see the speed option, put the ball in the quarterback's hands," Swinney said.

North Carolina did exactly that, and the Tigers were ready. 

"The guys did a great job leveraging the ball and getting off blocks and getting down the field," Venables said. "They had to make one more play."

"I was a little surprised that was the play they went with, but I thought we did a good job of reacting and adjusting," linebacker Isaiah Simmons said.

Even in victory, the game's result was too close for comfort for some AP Top 25 voters, and Clemson flipped places with the previous No. 2, Alabama.

But in the game's aftermath, the Tigers were content to celebrate a hard-fought victory, including Skalski. He knows how the Tar Heels would've felt if things had gone differently.

"Football's supposed to be fun," he said. "That's fun right there."

Higgins wins weekly award

Higgins did more than catch Lawrence's fourth-quarter touchdown pass. He finished with game highs in receptions (6) and receiving yards (129). 

The junior was recognized for his performance, earning ACC Receiver of the Week honors Monday.

The 100-yard receiving game was Higgins' second of the season and sixth of his career. Sophomore wide receiver Justyn Ross (hip flexor), who was kept out of last week's win against Charlotte as a precautionary measure, recorded three catches for 47 yards against the Tar Heels.

Follow Joshua Needelman on Twitter at @joshneedelman.

Joshua Needelman covers Clemson for The Post and Courier. He's a Long Island, N.Y., native and a University of Maryland graduate.

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