GRADES: This one hurts

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - No matter how you try to spin it, the Tigers have dug themselves in another enormous hole to start the season.

After a 74-yard touchdown pass to Jaron Brown with 5:31 left to play, the Clemson offense put together what looks like a semi-respectable stat line with 305 yards of total offense. But anyone who understands the game of football knows the Tigers were inconsistent at best with the ball in their hands Saturday afternoon. The running game was surprisingly absent, grinding out just 91 yards on 27 carries. Can anybody explain why the ACC's leading rusher (Andre Ellington) only carried it 12 times when he averaged 4.6 yards per carry? Kyle Parker and his wide receivers played significantly better than what it did a week against Miami, but throws downfield were few and far between. DeAndre Hopkins' seven catches would also have to be considered a bright spot, but 16 total points is going to leave Clemson on the losing end of most games it plays- especially on the road. Outside of Andre Ellington, everything Clemson's offense tries to do seems like a struggle. Indeed, it was a disappointing performance all the way around.

After giving up a touchdown on North Carolina's first possession of the game, Clemson's defense played well enough to win. Unfortunately, the big play bug bit the Tigers again, not to mention a series of terrible penalties on the Tar Heels' final scoring drive of the game. Clemson gave up just 255 yards, but couldn't get off the field when it needed to the most, and forced no turnovers. If the Tigers are to get back in the Atlantic Division race, they have to play with more discipline and poise because it's obvious with the game on the line this unit can't get the job done like it needs to in order to win games.

Jaron Brown's 74-yard touchdown reception was one of the lone bright spots for the Clemson offense Saturday. (Roy Philpott)
Chandler Catanzaro rebounded to make his first field goal attempt (48 yards) since missing the game-tying 30-yarder against Auburn, but he later missed from closer in. DeAndre Hopkins broke through with a 31-yard punt return to help setup the Tigers first touchdown but Marcus Gilchrist was a non-factor on kick returns and also had a fumble that was fortunately recovered by Andre Ellington. Dawson Zimmerman punted five times for a 40.2 yard average. Not a bad performance by Clemson's special teams, but it was the worst of the season through five games.

It was a loss. An ugly loss at that. The nine penalties for 81 yards were back-breaking, not to mention the fact the leading rusher in the conference only received 12 carries. And then there's the big plays - when will those disappear? Lastly, and most importantly, Clemson hasn't been very good in the last two years in close games. In fact, the Tigers are just won just one time in nine in games decided by five points or less since Swinney took over in 2008. What makes it worse is that in many of those instances Clemson is beating itself, just how it did in years leading up to Dabo's hiring. While the program has shown progress- especially in getting to the ACC Championship game a year ago, a loss like this, combined with close setbacks to Auburn and Miami, leave a bad taste in the mouth of just about everybody.

Hey - it's another loss in another winnable game- there's no way a passing grade can be given. Looking ahead, pesky Maryland comes to town next week and while most Clemson fans will be automatically chalking that one up as a win- it won't be easy. The Terps come in at 4-1 and have only lost one time in Death Valley since Ralph Friedgen took over in 2001. The coming week will be tough enough after losing in Chapel Hill, but a loss to Maryland would be unthinkable. Dabo hinted after Saturday's loss he's going to take it upon himself to prevent the big plays and undisciplined play that have plagued this team through five games. But will it be enough? Top Stories