"It's a sour taste," said UNC cornerback Kevin Knight. "My whole senior year and we don't win a game at home. That's frustrating for me. It's hard to deal with it, but I have to deal with it."
The loss also meant a 65-point turnaround for the Tigers, who were manhandled 38-3 at home by UNC last October.
"There's not much to say, except there are a few ballgames left," said UNC coach John Bunting. "Today was a game I really thought we would win, but I say that all the time anyway.
"We didn't make enough plays to get it done," he continued. "We had a chance with a couple of big plays in the first half."
The game followed a pattern frighteningly familiar to the Tar Heels. UNC (2-8, 0-6 Atlantic Coast Conference) opened strong, moving the ball well as it did in its last four games and actually managed an early lead.
On Carolina's second possession, they Tar Heels moved 52 yards to Clemson's 28-yard-line before Stephens was intercepted at the two. Three plays later, on 3rd-and-6, UNC's Kevin Knight sacked Tigers' quarterback Charlie Whitehurst on a safety blitz for a safety, and Carolina held 2-0 with 7:43 left in the first quarter. The points were the first by the defense this season and it was Carolina's first safety since 1999 against Houston.
Wallace Wright returned the ensuing kickoff 46 yards - the longest return of the season for UNC - to the 30. Five plays later C.J. Stephens (15-28, 150 yards, one interception, one TD) found Bobby Blizzard in the end zone for an 18-yard score, and surprisingly Carolina was on top, 9-0, with 5:01 left in the opening period.
"We felt good early on," Stephens said. "We moved the ball some and had a lead. But, we've been there before."
But as previous Tar Heel leads have, this one didn't last long.
Less than a minute later, Whitehurst (12-20, 274, four TDs) hooked up with Airese Curry for an 83-yard touchdown - the longest TD pass in Kenan Stadium history and third longest in Tigers' history - quickly cutting the margin to 9-7 with 4:37 left in the first quarter.
The Tigers (6-4, 4-3) later took advantage of an eight-yard punt by UNC's Paul Roberts, and cruised 45 yards - all on the ground - to move ahead 14-9 on Bernard Rambert's 3-yard run with 13:07 left before halftime.
The Tar Heels blew another chance to score when they entered the red zone past the midway point of the second period, but came up short on fourth-and-inches at the Clemson 20-yard line. Originally, it appeared that the Tigers had stopped UNC, forcing Carolina into a fourth-and-1 at its own 18. But UNC faked the punt, and Jacque Lewis jaunted 29 yards for the first down and UNC retained possession.
But on fourth-and-inches, Stephens dropped back to pass, but his look to Blizzard was batted away and Clemson took over.
"Just as before we were almost there," Stephens said. "We put together some good drives and don't get it on third and an inch and fourth and an inch. Get some plays called back and we just continuously seem to be putting ourselves in a situation that is difficult to overcome."
The Tigers extended their margin to 21-9 when Whitehurst found J.J. McKelvey for a 58-yard scoring toss with 29 seconds left before intermission.
On the play, Whitehurst rolled to his right and lofted a poorly thrown ball toward the middle of the field. But the 6-foot-4 McKelvey, who had single coverage from UNC's 5-foot-10 Chris Hawkins, jumped for the ball and escaped Hawkins, who tried bringing the Tiger to the ground by tugging at the tail of his jersey.
And after Clemson opened the second half with a quick seven-play, 80-yard scoring drive to go up 28-9, the game was all but over.
"That was really big because that put them up, like three touchdowns," said UNC linebacker Malcolm Stewart. "They scored two quick touchdowns if you look back to the end of the first half, and that really hurt a lot."
UNC did manage a rare second-half score - a 49-yard field goal by Dan Orner to make it 28-12 with 9:13 left in the third quarter. It was the first time UNC had scored in the second half since a late touchdown at Virginia three weeks ago and just the fourth time UNC had scored in the final half since it won at Arizona State.
"It's very frustrating, being a competitor and loving this game as much as I do," said senior receiver Chesley Borders. "It's just the will to come back and do it all over again, realizing that, 'hey, we got another opportunity next week to play a great football game.'"
Clemson added two more scores - one a 3-yard TD pass from Whitehurst to Jasmin on a drive that saw UNC flagged three times inside its own 14 and miss an opportunity to pick up a fumble at the goal line.
Although UNC receiver Sam Aiken now owns the single-season school receptions record with 58, there wasn't anything unique about this loss that wasn't on display over the last few weeks. Penalties, missed tackles, an ineffective conventional ground attack, poor run defense - Clemson had a pair of 100-yard rushers - and an assortment of other problem areas all contributed to the loss.
"There were some better things that happened this week than have happened the previous two weeks, and that's a very, very small silver lining," Bunting said. "That's what I'm going to grasp onto and hold onto."
Why not? The obvious isn't that palatable right now.
Senior writer Andrew Jones is in his seventh year with Inside Carolina. He hosts a late afternoon radio show on ESPN Radio, WMFD AM630 in Wilmington and can be reached via e-mail at: AndrewJones@AM630.net.