Rarely has a loss represented such a major victory for a college football program as did North Carolina’s 21-20 setback to defending national champion Clemson on Saturday.
“I think everything came out of Saturday good,” coach Mack Brown said at his regular weekly press conference Monday, “except we lost by one point.”
Brown’s Tar Heels were a 27-point underdog against the Tigers and were in danger of losing the last remnants of momentum gained from their unexpected 2-0 start before battling the then-No. 1 team in the nation down to literally one final play.
But for all UNC gained from the valiant effort, witnessed by a national television audience and sellout crowd at Kenan Stadium, it was still just a third straight loss. That makes this week’s game at Georgia Tech, in which the Tar Heels go from facing the ACC’s best team to its worst, the most pivotal Brown’s team has played to date.
“I think the thing that you look at is, if we lay down and don’t play after this, then we didn’t learn,” Brown said. “If we use it again to continue to grow and build, then we really learned something. It did send a message to our fanbase that we’re headed in the right direction. It did send a message to recruits that, if we can get Clemson down to one play, we’re going to be good in the future, so you’d better jump on now because this train is taking off.”
The biggest potential obstacle standing in the way of that journey, at least in the short term, is a Georgia Tech team in the earliest stages of a complete rebuild.
The Yellow Jackets are off to a rocky 1-3 start under new coach Geoff Collins after losing to The Citadel on Sept. 14 and mustering only a safety in a 24-2 loss to Temple last Saturday. They present the perfect opportunity for UNC to get back on the right track and take another step toward bowl eligibility.
But only if the Tar Heels (2-3, 1-1 ACC) don’t fall into the trap of playing down to the level of their competition, especially after playing at such a high level the week before.
“I’d like to see our team win, period,” Brown said. “We have to be us, and we have to play with passion to have a chance to win.”
There was certainly enough passion to go around at Kenan last Saturday, when Brown’s team went toe-to-toe with an elite opponent in the midst of a 20-game winning streak.
UNC stayed within striking distance with a defensive effort that held Clemson scoreless on nine of 12 possessions while limiting the Tigers to a season-worst 331 total yards and their lowest point total since 2017.
Freshman quarterback Sam Howell, as is rapidly becoming his trademark, then put together another clutch fourth-quarter drive — an epic 16-play, 75-play march that lasted more than 8½ minutes before Javonte Williams dove into the end zone to set up a dramatic finish.
“We did enough to win, but listen, I thought they outplayed us,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said afterward. “I thought they out-coached us, simple as that. We were really fortunate to win the game. At the end of the day, you need one more point to win and we came away with the victory.”
That one-point margin came about because Swinney’s coaching counterpart decided to go for the two-point conversion and the win with just over a minute remaining in regulation than taking his chances in overtime.
Even though Howell was stopped short of the goal line as he ran the option on the decisive two-point try, Brown said his decision to roll the dice rather than playing it safe was the right thing to do under the circumstances.
“Two-point play, absolutely, 100 percent go for it again,” Brown said. “We had three to five guys out on defense. We were trying to get the clock down under a minute and they only had one timeout left, so we thought our best advantage was take one play to win, and then try to hold them from a field goal.
“The play that we ran was zone read. You’ve got an opportunity to hand it to Javonte Williams. You’ve got an opportunity for your quarterback to keep it, or you’ve got an opportunity to pitch it to Dazz Newsome. All three really good players. When a play call doesn’t work, the play-caller gets criticized.”
And there was plenty of criticism to go around.
“Even my 8-year-old grandson said, ‘Why that play, pops?’” Brown said. “I said, ‘OK Tyler, let it go bud.’ But even he said it. But you can only run about four plays down there. … That was one of them we had picked and it didn’t work.”