CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Deshaun Watson did everything in his power to ensure Clemson’s perfect season continued. But the unbeaten Tigers might have gotten a little help from the officials, too.
The Heisman Trophy hopeful threw for three touchdowns and ran for two more as No. 1 Clemson stayed unbeaten by holding off eighth-ranked North Carolina 45-37 Saturday night in the ACC championship game.
Watson’s 420 total yards and five total touchdowns set ACC championship game records and assures the Tigers (13-0) a spot in the College Football Playoff.
“I wanted to prove that we were one of the best teams in the country and that we deserved to be in the top four,” Watson said.
The win didn’t come without controversy.
North Carolina’s Ryan Switzer hauled in his second TD catch of the game with 1:13 left to cut Clemson’s lead to eight.
The Tar Heels appeared to recover the onside kick, but were called for being offside — although replays didn’t show any player in a blue jersey being offside — and had to kick again. North Carolina attempted another onside kick and this time Clemson recovered and ran out the clock.
“I had a chance to look at it and they missed it. They were wrong. That’s all I’m going to say about it. They were wrong,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said.
Fedora said with three timeouts and the ball near midfield with 1:08 left on the clock he was confident North Carolina could have scored and had a chance at a 2-point conversion to send the game into overtime.
“It isn’t going to change,” Fedora said. “It doesn’t matter one way or the other, so I’m going to have to swallow it like a man and just take it.”
Now, the only suspense left is whether Clemson or No. 2 Alabama is in the top spot when the playoff pairings are revealed Sunday.
“We’ve got three top 10 wins. Anybody else got that? And we’re 13-0,” a grinning Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said after the game.
Clemson racked up a conference championship game record 608 yards, eclipsing the 500-yard mark for the ninth consecutive game.
Wayne Gallman ran for 185 yards on 27 carries and scored two touchdowns and Artavis Scott had seven catches for 96 yards and a score.
“They stretch you with their receivers, horizontally, and created seams in the defense,” Fedora said. “And if you don’t fit exactly where you’re supposed to or you miss a tackle, they’re going to have a big play, and that’s what happened.”
Marquise Williams threw for 224 yards and three touchdowns and also ran for 81 yards and a score for the Tar Heels (11-2, No. 10 CFP), who were trying to win their first ACC title in 35 years.
Williams said he was proud of how his team played.
“A lot of people thought we were going to come out here and just lay an egg, but we didn’t,” said Williams, who played high school football in Charlotte.
The Tigers outgained the Tar Heels 309-103 in the first half, but needed a jump pass touchdown from Watson to tight end Jordan Leggett with two seconds left in the second quarter to take a 21-16 lead into the locker room.
Clemson’s lead might have been bigger had it not been for a curious decision by Tigers punter Andy Teasdall, who decided to take matters into his own hands and take off running on fourth-and-15 at his own 30. He picked up just 4 yards before being dragged down and received an earful from coaches when he returned to the sideline.
The Tar Heels took advantage right away, quickly moving 34 yards in four plays with Williams finding Switzer in the back of the end zone for a 3-yard touchdown pass to give the Tar Heels a 16-14 lead.
“There was no fake punt, that was just him losing his mind,” Swinney said. “He went Superman on me. I have no answer.”
However, Watson put the Tigers back in front with two seconds left in the first half on a 1-yard jump pass to tight end Jordan Leggett.
Watson was named the game’s Most Outstanding Player while continuing to build his case to become the first Heisman Trophy winner in school history.
He struck the Heisman pose after the game.
“I feel like I’m one of the best in the country because of the players I have (on the team) with me and the coaches on this staff,” Watson said.
“If you sit down and watch our 13 games, he’s the best player in the country — and there is no doubt about it,” Swinney said. “This guy beats you not just with his legs, but his arm, his mind, his heart, his guts and his toughness. He’s a great champion.”