The Daily Tar Heel
Printing news. Raising hell. Since 1893.
Sunday, Sept. 24, 2023 Newsletters Latest print issue

We keep you informed.

Help us keep going. Donate Today.
The Daily Tar Heel

Two yards and one play are all that separate UNC football from No. 1 Clemson

UNC quarterback Sam Howell (7) fakes a handoff to running back Javonte Williams (25) on a late two-point conversion attempt against No.1 Clemson. When the play came up short, UNC lost 21-20 on Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019 in Kenan Memorial Stadium.

Two yards. 

Two yards – for the North Carolina football team, that was the difference between a heartbreaking 21-20 loss to Clemson on Saturday and a season-altering win against the No. 1 team in the land.

The stage had been set. At the 9:54 mark of the fourth quarter, sophomore quarterback Trevor Lawrence, Clemson’s own football wunderkind, delivered a strike to wide receiver Tee Higgins to give the Tigers their first lead of the game, 21-14. 

To that point, North Carolina, a team that went 2-9 a season ago, had matched Clemson, the reigning undefeated national champion, for more than 50 minutes of game time. Those who had bet on the Tigers to cover a 26.5-point spread had already shut off their televisions. The rest of the football world, though, had its eyes on Chapel Hill.

Like every other game this season, it would be up to first-year quarterback Sam Howell to deliver in the fourth quarter. Deliver he did, leading North Carolina on an eight-minute, 32-second drive that saw the Tar Heels convert not one, but two fourth downs to keep their upset hopes alive.

A 22-yard scamper from Javonte Williams would set up 1st-and-goal from the 3-yard line. When the running back punched it in two plays later, his head coach Mack Brown held up two fingers.

“I asked (offensive coordinator Phil Longo), ‘Do you have a play that you think is gonna be able to score, win the game and beat the number one team in the country?’” Brown said after the game. “And he said yes. And we ran it.”

Brown felt his team was worn down, that the Tigers were deeper and fresher, that if the game was to be won, it would be won then and there.

“I just felt like it was our chance,” he said.

“It’s just a play we’re very confident in,” Howell said. “In my opinion, it was a good play call. It’s something we liked against them. They just made a good play on defense.”

The play in question would see Howell pull the ball and roll out to his right after a read option, then decide to take it himself when he didn’t like what he saw. Before he could reach paydirt, he was swarmed by more than a couple Clemson defenders, and receiver Dazz Newsome’s last-ditch effort to scoop up the loose ball and find the end zone was to no avail.

Football is a game of inches, etc., etc. But to safety Myles Dorn’s point, to boil 60 minutes down to a single play would be to oversimplify what actually happened.

“You can say it was the last play that changed the game, but actually there’s so many plays throughout the day that could’ve changed the game,” Dorn said. “You never know which one it is.”

The point stands, though: North Carolina was one play — one tantalizing moment — from a win over No. 1. If the final touchdown drive was a slow and steady simmer — and an all-too-easy metaphor for the strides this year’s Tar Heels have made compared to seasons past — then the failed 2-point attempt was an electric jolt: a painful reminder of how sports can work.

“We’re having a different conversation if we’d made it,” Brown said. “You all are talking about me being a genius instead of an idiot. That’s the difference in two points.”

Again, cliches abound: the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, etc., etc. But wins and losses aside, no UNC team of recent years could have pushed Clemson to the brink like this group just did.

And while Brown was insistent that the Tar Heels aren’t into moral victories — “That doesn’t happen,” he said, “it can’t happen” — he must also acknowledge the ways that his return has changed North Carolina football.

“If I’m a reflection of the way those guys fought their guts out tonight,” Brown said, “I’m very, very proud of that.”


@DTHSports |

To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.