The Tar Heels (1-7, 0-4 ACC) led 28-23 with 6:43 remaining in the third quarter, but could not answer any more of the Tigers' points, going scoreless in the final period.
A 23-yard field goal by Aaron Hunt gave Clemson (5-3, 3-2 ACC) the final margin of victory, but not before Carolina would get the ball one last time with 3:10 remaining in the game.
Darian Durant drove the Tar Heels 70 yards, but came up one short at the end of a spectacular run that would have put the Tar Heels in position to attempt a game-tying two-point conversion.
While attempting to cross the goal line with 42 seconds showing on the clock, Durant was hit by roverback Jamaal Fudge and fumbled the ball into the end zone where it was recovered by reserve Clemson linebacker David Dunham.
"I don't remember how the ball got knocked out or if it slipped out," Durant said. "As soon as I knew it came loose, I tried to fight for it. I think I lost control of the ball before I stretched out."
"I thought he actually rolled over the guy and got the ball in," tailback Chad Scott said. "I thought the referee said he was down, but then he put his hand up signaling a first down going the other way."
However, the television instant replay showed the ball had come loose before Durant crossed the goal line.
Durant, who earlier became UNC's all-time total offense leader and became the only Tar Heel to rush for over 100 yards this year, also committed four turnovers.
"It's disappointing for me because this is the last opportunity I will get to play these guys down here," he said.
Clemson wide receiver Derrick Hamilton caught three passes for 102 yards and a touchdown and also had a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown that put the Tigers up for good.
"Derrick Hamilton had a great game to bounce back from last week," Clemson coach Tommy Bowden said. "His kickoff return was big."
Like a slower version of a tennis match, 75,000 fans watched the back and forth action of virtually unhindered offenses. In all, 1,023 yards of total offense was accumulated in a game that featured six lead changes along with a bevy of big plays.
Trailing 21-16 midway through the third quarter and facing a 4th and 4, Clemson quarterback Charlie Whitehurst found Hamilton for a 30-yard jump ball down to the Tar Heels' 1-yard line. Whitehurst then dove over the goal line on the next play to give the Tigers the lead back at 23-21 following the point after touchdown.
"When they were in press man coverage, we wanted to get behind them," Whitehurst said. "But they run so well in the secondary that you have to throw up some jump balls – maybe not jump balls, but definitely high percentage underthrows."
But a 63-yard quarterback sneak for a touchdown by Durant on UNC's next possession, seesawed the lead back to Carolina. It was the longest run from scrimmage for the Tar Heels this season.
And the fans' neck pain would worsen, as just seconds later, Hamilton took the ensuing kickoff 100 yards to paydirt, to edge Clemson back on top 30-28 with 6:28 remaining in the third quarter.
By this time, the momentum the Tar Heels had wrestled away was gone and the mass of orange-clad fans was again turned on.
"I really feel bad for our players and coaches," UNC coach John Bunting said. "Our kids played their hearts out. We came back from a 13-0 deficit and we never got down. I told them that if we keep playing like we did today, the they will be rewarded."
After an apparent Clemson touchdown was negated by an illegal touching penalty, the Tar Heel defense survived the Tigers' first possession. A 32-yard punt return by Michael Waddell, Carolina's longest of the year, gave UNC good field position to begin its first drive of the game.
But a three-and-out put the nation's 117th ranked defense right back on the field. And three plays later, Whitehurst found Hamilton for a 69-yard touchdown pass.
Whitehurst, the ACC's third leading passer, completed 18 of 34 passes for 309 yards.
"That was one of the worst games I've played all year," Whitehurst said. "But a win is a win."
After the Tar Heels failed to get a first down on their next possession, Duane Coleman ran for 50 yards on the Tigers' first play and then Chad Jasmin had consecutive 12-yard runs. A UNC facemask penalty put the ball on the 1-yard line, and Jasmin scored up the middle, capping a four-play 76-yard touchdown drive. Following Aaron Hunt's missed point after, Clemson led 13-0 with 5:40 remaining in the first quarter.
Carolina's offense was effective on it's next possession, driving to the Tigers' 23-yard line. But on a third down, Durant threw to Jesse Holley, who tipped the ball up in the air and was picked off by Fudge. It was Durant's first intercepted pass in 137 attempts.
By the end of the first quarter, Clemson had already rolled up 205 yards of offense, evenly distributed both rushing and passing. But then the UNC defense stiffened and did not allow another first down during the Tigers' next three possessions.
"We played well on defense," Bunting said. "We had very few missed tackles, and we got some good pressure on the quarterback."
The Tar Heels found the red zone after a 48-yard run by Jacque Lewis early in the second quarter. Two plays later, Durant found Adarius Bowman over the middle for a 21-yard touchdown pass. Following Dan Orner's extra point, Carolina had cut the lead the Tigers' lead to 13-7.
Then on their next possession, the Tar Heels were knocking on the door again at the five-yard line, following a 41-yard hookup from Durant to Bobby Blizzard. But with Blizzard all alone in the back of the end zone, Durant's pass was tipped and he was intercepted again, killing the drive.
"We have a quarterback who is very good and a tough kid," Bunting said. "But we tried to force some plays that we shouldn't have and ended up turning the ball over."
Carolina got the ball right back and this time capitalized on a three-play, 42-yard scoring drive. Lewis' three-yard run – his first rushing touchdown of the season – led to a 14-13 lead for the Tar Heels with 6:39 remaining in the first half.
A 42-yard field goal by Hunt with one second left in the first half gave the Tigers a 16-13 lead heading into the locker room, but Carolina stormed out of the gate in the second half and reclaimed the lead.
Durant was 3-for-3 for 42 yards to start the drive. Then the Tigers were fed a heavy dose of Ronnie McGill, who scored his fourth touchdown in three games from three yards out to put the Tar Heels up 21-16.
"We've been talking about getting a push from the offensive linemen off the ball and the running backs helping them out by setting the blocks," Scott said. "We worked on that real hard during the week and we came out and executed it today."
As a team, the Tar Heels rushed for a season-high 287 yards on 40 carries.