In a game that saw UNC gain just 293 yards of total offense on Thursday—its lowest of the Larry Fedora era—the Tar Heels did show that if a team can work a tempo-based attack, it can slow South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney.
But, considering the Heels lost by 17 points and only scored one touchdown, this was not the victory that people in Chapel Hill were hoping to bring home.
College football is not the place for moral victories, but it is one where coaches look for an edge, and in the case of UNC vs. South Carolina, the takeaway will be tempo—tempo to stop South Carolina from substituting and, in turn, to work Clowney's conditioning.
On drives of 16 and 17 plays, the Tar Heels executed the game plan of making the All-American defensive end earn everything. After nine Tar Heels plays in the first quarter, the third UNC drive opened with Clowney sidelined and rotated out of the game. After 3:24 of game time, he was reinserted, and the Heels continued to work their plan.
Coach Fedora worked runs away from Clowney, quick handoffs to the middle and pass plays to keep him off balance. Although the end got some quarterback pressure and hammered the edge hard against a run toward him, he had to come out after a few plays.
Given a two-play breather with the Tar Heels sitting at the 4-yard line, he came in, only to see a Bryn Renner pass get completed for a touchdown.
In the third quarter, coming out of halftime, the Gamecocks defensive end started the Heels' 17-play field-goal drive and impacted their attack. Even as UNC picked up yardage, Fedora's offense stuck to the plan of running away from Clowney, hitting screen passes to and away from the left side and employing quick interior runs.
Clowney again pressured the quarterback and pursued runs before being forced out of the game for a quick spell to catch his breath. Following the three-play breather, he returned to get pressure, redirect a run play and help force a field goal from the Gamecocks' 2-yard line.
Two drives totaling 13 minutes and 18 seconds of clock time—where North Carolina mixed tempos, forced Clowney to work and ran 33 total plays—showed success can be had against the defensive end. Granted, it must be noted that he was reportedly sick during the game, as he admitted afterward per Josh Kendall at The State.
Unfortunately for Clowney, the offseason has seen him built into a mythical figure where only sacks and crushing tackles for losses matter in the grand scheme of things. In that regard, his Heisman campaign got off to a shaky start, mostly because he was a mortal suffering from something cornerback Victor Hampton acknowledged the entire defense struggled with: fatigue due to UNC's tempo.
In theory, teams have an idea of how to tucker Clowney out: using extended drives, churning up first downs, making him move side to side, forcing him to chase quarterbacks upfield and limiting South Carolina's opportunities to substitute. However, as Hampton pointed out in the Josh Kendall tweet, the Gamecocks' next opponent does not make use of the same tempo-based attack.
Tempo is not something teams can pick up in a week to use against Clowney. It is either a part of the program's identity or not. Looking at the Gamecocks' remaining schedule, this defense—not just Clowney but the group of players as a whole that limited UNC to just 293 yards—is going to give offenses problems game in and game out.
Clowney will get healthy, the Gamecocks will work on conditioning, and ultimately South Carolina will travel to Athens next week looking to get a leg up in the SEC East race.