CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Just before the snap of the ball, Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence watched as North Carolina’s defense made a subtle shift. That's when he knew there was a touchdown waiting to happen.
The Tar Heels had pretty much shut down Clemson’s offense for the better part of three quarters, well as much as a defense can slow down one of the nation’s elite offensive units.
With less than 10 minutes left in Saturday's game, the Tigers had scored just two touchdowns and had less than 300 yards of offense. Clemson came into the game averaging 42 points and nearly 525 yards per game.
With the game tied at 14 midway through the fourth quarter, the Tigers were searching for a dynamic play that had all but eluded them most the game – the Tigers finished with just two plays of more than 20 yards. Just before the snap of the ball, Lawrence noticed that the Tar Heels were going to use a linebacker to cover receiver Tee Higgins.
“There’s no way any linebacker in the country can stay with Tee,” Lawrence said after the game. “I’m not sure if it was a bust in coverage or they were trying to bring pressure, but there was a linebacker on Tee.
"We had seam route called and I knew he was going to win. If I had time, I knew he’d run by him and I just needed to give him a chance. I didn’t want to overthrow it, I kind of underthrew it, and Tee goes up and makes a play like he always does.”
Higgins blew past the Tar Heels' secondary and hauled in the 38-yard TD that turned out to be the game-winner in Clemson's 21-20 victory over North Carolina. Higgins, a junior, who will almost assuredly head to the NFL after this season, finished the game with six catches for 129 yards and the only TD catch of the game.
“I knew we needed something to happen for us,” Higgins said. “I’m not sure if the linebacker was supposed to be on me or if they busted a coverage, but I knew I could get past him. Trevor put the ball up where I could make a play like he always does.”
Higgins' touchdown was one of the few highlights for Clemson on offense. The Tar Heels did a good job of tackling, holding running back Travis Etienne to 67 yards on 14 attempts and receiver Justyn Ross to 47 receiving yards.
“Tee is a great player and we work on a lot of those things in practice and over the summer,” said Lawrence, who threw for 206 yards and 1 TD. “Tee and I have a great connection. I know where he’s going to be, and I know where to put the ball where he likes it.”
Of Higgins' six receptions, four were for first downs.
"You can't get down, you can't get frustrated, we knew things would eventually open up for us," Higgins said.
Clemson offensive co-coordinator Tony Elliott said the Tar Heels' defensive game plan was to take away the underneath throws that have worked so well for the Tigers this season.
“Give North Carolina credit, they took away a lot of the easy throws that we normally get,” Elliott said. “They played a lot of two-deep safety, but on that fourth-quarter throw they brought some pressure and took a chance and played one-on-one. Tee got the release, we got the protection and Trevor released a strike.”