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Tar Heels and Tigers tangle in Death Valley

The North Carolina Tar Heels will venture to South Carolina this weekend for an ACC showdown with the Clemson Tigers, who came from behind last week against Maryland to preserve a perfect record.

North Carolina fell 30-24 to Miami last weekend in Chapel Hill, which snapped a two-game winning streak. The Tar Heels got off to a slow start, as the Hurricanes built a 17-0 first quarter lead. North Carolina, despite being down 27-3 late in the third quarter, battled back in the fourth and drove into Miami territory in the final minute, trailing 30-24. The rally fell short.

"I thought our kids tried to compete and fight the entire game," said head coach Everett Withers following the defeat. "It's hard to beat a good football team when you spot them 17 points."

Clemson also trailed for much of its matchup with Maryland last weekend, including a a 35-17 deficit early in the third quarter. But behind an upstart offense and a little special teams boost, the Tigers eventually outscored the Terrapins 39-10 from that point on. Clemson is ranked seventh in the BCS, which is the highest ranking since 2000, when the Tigers were also ranked seventh in the polls in October of that year.

Clemson leads the all-time series with North Carolina, 34-19-1.

North Carolina is led offensively by Bryn Renner, who is currently seventh in the country in passing efficiency (174.1), and he has a top-flight receiver in Dwight Jones (46 catches, 687 yards, eight touchdowns). Renner has thrown for 1,593 yards and 14 touchdowns with six interceptions (he threw for 288 and two touchdowns last weekend against Miami). The Tar Heels, who average 392.5 yards per game, are led on the ground by Giovani Bernard, who has rushed for over 100 yards in five consecutive games, with nine touchdowns.

"He's quick. He's a slasher. If you don't fit your gaps perfectly, he'll find that spot," said Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney of Bernard at his weekly press conference on Tuesday. "He's a little like CJ (Spiller) in his early career."

The Tar Heels' defense held Louisville to just 273 yards and seven points two weeks ago in 14-7 win. The unit followed that performance with another strong showing against Miami, at least against Lamar Miller and the talented Hurricanes' rushing attack, surrendering just 44 yards on the ground. North Carolina is sixth in the ACC in total defense, allowing 356.1 yards per game, including just 108.4 on the ground, which is good for third in the conference. North Carolina will get a stiff test from Tajh Boyd and Clemson this week, who look to expose a team that is 92nd in the country in pass defense (247.7 yards per game). The Tar Heels, who have 11 takeaways against 12 turnovers this season, are led by linebacker Zach Brown (46 tackles). Kareem Martin leads the team with four sacks, while Quinton Coples has 3.5.

"North Carolina is another tough challenge for us this week. They're as good as anyone we've played up to this point," said Swinney. "They're a really good football team that's capable of beating anyone on any given day. They have a lot of future NFL players on their roster."

Clemson boasts one of the most prolific offenses in the country, and its ability to strike with big plays is a large reason why the club remains undefeated. Boyd, who has thrown for over 2,100 yards and 19 touchdowns, is currently 13th in the country in passing efficiency (159.7) and has thrown just three interceptions. He had a big second half for Clemson a week ago in the 56-45 come-from-behind win over Maryland, and threw for 270 yards and four touchdowns, and added 37 yards on the ground. Boyd leads a unit that ranks 15th in the country in total offense (487.1) and 21st in scoring (38.0 points per game).

Clemson averages 193.4 yards per game on the ground, which is second best in the ACC. Andre Ellington has been the centerpiece of the ground game, averaging 105.7 yards per game and showing a nose for the end zone with seven rushing touchdowns. Boyd has a number of threats on the perimeter, starting with freshman Sammy Watkins, who has recorded 46 catches for 728 yards and eight touchdowns this season. He adds punch in the return game, as evident in last weeks win over the Terps, returning a kickoff 89 yards for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter. Sophomore DeAndre Hopkins is another young star, and he has recorded 28 catches for 353 yards and three touchdowns.

Maryland had big numbers against the Clemson offense last weekend: 45 points, 177 yards passing with three touchdowns and 291 yards rushing with another two scores. The numbers were emblematic of the unit's season averages: Clemson allows 179 yards rushing per game (84th nationally), and 193.2 yards passing, the latter of which ranks third best in the ACC. The Tigers give up 23.1 points per game, which is a manageable average considering the potency of its offense. This isn't a unit that necessarily gets alot of pressure (Clemson has recorded 13 sacks and 35 tackles for loss in seven games), but seven different players have recorded interceptions and the Tigers remain positive in the turnover ration (11-7). Andre Branch leads the league in sacks with seven, and is also the top tackler for loss with 12. Linebacker Jonathan Willard leads the team with 42 tackles.