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North Carolina pushed No. 1 Clemson to the limit on Saturday, coming up one play short of shocking the college football world, as the Tigers held on for a 21-20 victory.

Here’s what we learned about the Tar Heels in their best performance of the season.

Carolina Can, but will it?

We’ve seen this version of the Tar Heels against Miami, South Carolina and now Clemson.

Carolina came out with energy and confidence, not yielding an inch to the defending national champions. Offensively, the Tar Heels took a few shots while the defense never got rattled despite battling two Heisman Trophy hopefuls.

“It just showed what we’re capable of as a team,’ quarterback Sam Howell said. “That’s the best team in the country, we just took them down to the wire and should have won the game. It shows what we’re capable of.”

That version of the Tar Heels is the complete opposite of the team we saw vs. Wake Forest and Appalachian State, getting punched in the mouth early, lost their confidence and players began pressing, hurting Carolina as they tried to do too much and didn’t stick to their responsibilities.

“If we’re consistent then we can be good … but we feel like we can beat everybody,” running back Michael Carter said. “So far, that’s kind of been the story … we play good teams well and we play teams that people feel like we should beat not as well. We’ve got to respect every single opponent.”

Defensive details

In reviewing the App State loss, Carolina’s defensive mistakes were tiny — but costly — details: overrunning plays, going for the spectacular play rather than the right play and poor fundamentals with leverage and tackling.

Things were the complete opposite against Clemson, as the Tar Heel defenders took care of every detail in limiting the Tigers to 331 yards — nearly 200 below their average of 524.8 yards coming in.

For example, watch how this screen pass was covered vs. App State.

vs. App State

vs. App State

And how much more controlled and sound the Carolina defenders were on a key third-down stop.

vs. Clemson

vs. Clemson

All week long, Mack Brown stressed to his team that the Tigers are the better team with more talent and more depth. Several players said that understanding led them to focus on the details of their own game.

In addition, the defense played fast and free, thanks to their preparation from coordinator Jay Bateman and the staff.

"Everything they did out there today, Coach Bateman had it To a T all practice and then little things they switched up, we got them corrected at halftime," linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel said.

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The loss to the Mountaineers also illuminated the communications issues that Carolina was having.

"There were so many plays where one half was playing one defense and the other half was playing another," Gemmel said. "That’s just straight communication and after watching film … everybody took it really seriously after the loss to App State and came out and communicated all week."

Play like you practice

After Wednesday's practice, Brown said he had been impressed with the Tar Heels' attitude and approach in practice after the App State loss.

He said they needed to practice harder and better, and to that point, had been doing that.

On Saturday, they saw the fruits of their labor.

"This shows us what we can be," Brown said. "I told the guys we had the best Sunday practice, the best Tuesday practice, Wednesday practice, Thursday Practice. Friday, they were so locked in. It was a fun week to coach. Much more fun than the two previous weeks. I also told them that if you do that every week, we have a chance every week to win the rest of the games because this is who you are, but you've got to be that every game. "

To a man, Carolina's players agreed with their coach.

"I think we just had a really great week of practice," Gemmel said. "We’ve never had such a great week of practice like we did this week, and it started on Sunday.”  

The energy lulls that have struck during the second and third quarters this season were absent vs. Clemson, with Carolina maintaining its level of play from beginning to end.

Now, the challenge will be maintaining it from week to week.

"We've got to do the same thing for Georgia Tech next week," Brown said, before mimicking a roller coaster, "You cannot be this kind of team. You've got to be a team that plays to a standard and doesn't play to an opponent."

No help

The Tar Heels couldn't afford to help Clemson on Saturday, and they were nearly perfect in that regard.

Carolina was flagged for two false starts and one holding call in the second quarter, but beyond that, it was perfect. No penalties in the second half and none on the defense.

After Sam Howell threw two interceptions and fumbled once against App State, he didn't turn the ball over against Clemson and never put the ball or himself in danger, sliding to avoid contact and throwing the ball away a few times.

It was the second time this season Carolina hasn't turned the ball over in a game as well as the second time it has won the turnover battle. The Tar Heels are even in turnover margin on the season, 

The three penalties for 20 yards were second only to the one-penalty, five-yard performance against Miami. Carolina ranks 13th nationally in average penalty yardage at 39.6 — a major jump from 73rd in 2018, when the Tar Heels gave up an average of 55.6 yards and 123rd in 2017 at 72.7 yards.