CLEMSON — In the end, it was Trevor Lawrence standing tall, his arms aloft, his head bowed. Clemson's prized sophomore quarterback was tested like he never had been this past Saturday at North Carolina, engaged in a four-quarter battle against a confident opponent.
The Tar Heels, unlike most of Clemson's competitors in Lawrence's 20-game career, put up a fight. And they nearly came out victorious. North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell was three yards away from completing a two-point conversion that would've put the Tar Heels up by 1 with 1:17 to go.
Instead, it was the Tigers who left Kenan Memorial Stadium with the victory, and Lawrence who touched the ball last. He took a knee on the game's final play, handed the ball to the official and stood in a victory pose as the players and coaches on the Clemson sideline shuffled toward him to celebrate the 21-20 win.
It was far from Lawrence's most impressive statistical game. But it was a performance from which Coach Dabo Swinney learned a lot about his quarterback.
"I've never seen him with a game on the line in the fourth quarter, not where it came down to the last second," Swinney said. "I was very encouraged to see his grit, his moxie."
Prior to Saturday's game, Clemson's average margin of victory was 35 points in the last 14 games that Lawrence started over the past two seasons.
Lawrence, as Swinney pointed out, has been in big games at Clemson. He led the Tigers to victories in last season's College Football Playoff semifinal and national championship. But both of those games were blowouts. The Tigers beat Notre Dame, 30-3, then Alabama, 44-16, and Lawrence starred in both contests.
Expectations skyrocketed in the offseason, with Lawrence mandated to complete two more years of college football before he could play in the NFL, despite many believing he was ready for the pros. Fans let themselves think big.
"I know a lot of people think he's some kind of robot and we're some kind of video game people," Swinney said. "We're real people."
That was clear Saturday as North Carolina matched Lawrence and Clemson blow for blow. After Lawrence led the Tigers down the field and handed the ball off to running back Travis Etienne for a 13-yard touchdown to knot the game at 7-7 early in the second quarter, Howell answered two possessions later with 10-yard touchdown pass to receiver Beau Corrales. It would be up to Lawrence and Clemson to outlast the home team.
He used his legs often. Late in the second quarter, with Clemson trailing by 7, Lawrence took off on third and 5 and rushed for a 16-yard gain, sliding before absorbing any contact. On the next play, as North Carolina sent a blitz, Lawrence shook off a would-be tackler, rolled left and fired a 28-yard completion on the move to receiver Tee Higgins to get Clemson inside the 10-yard line. Six plays later, he rumbled into the end zone, absorbing contact, for a 3-yard touchdown on third and goal. It was his fourth rushing score this season, after recording one in 2018.
Lawrence wasn't terribly inefficient as a thrower. He completed 18 of 30 passes for 206 yards. Swinney acknowledged Lawrence made some mistakes, but was encouraged by how the sophomore found other ways to make things happen.
"Obviously missed a few throws tonight I could've made," Lawrence said. "But this game's about the way you respond."
On Clemson's first drive in the fourth quarter, Lawrence noticed a linebacker on Higgins. His mind was made up before he took the snap. The deep ball fell softly into Higgins' hands. Touchdown, Clemson.
Lawrence's work was not done. The quarterback joined the defense's huddle on the game's final drive as North Carolina drove down the field. Faced with a close game for the time in his career, Lawrence dove into the moment.
"Man, he just hung in there," Swinney said. "That's what the great ones do."