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.