On October 20, 1990, Mack Brown’s North Carolina football team tied Georgia Tech at home in Kenan Stadium. It was a game that many at the time saw as a turning point for Brown’s program after suffering through back-to-back 1-10 seasons to begin his first tenure in Chapel Hill.
Why was a tie so significant? That tie would go on to be the only blemish on an otherwise perfect record for the Yellow Jackets as they went on to eventually be named Co-National Champions with the University of Colorado.
On that October day in Chapel Hill, Brown’s Tar Heels went toe-to-toe with the eventual national champion, and from that point on, North Carolina went on a run of winning seasons not seen since the 1930’s.
Fast forward to this past Saturday. Brown is back in Chapel Hill trying to repeat the success of his first stint at North Carolina. After two wins to open the season, his Tar Heels suffered back-to-back losses against Wake Forest and Appalachian State. After the second loss he was asked if the momentum from the wins was now lost due to the losses. He answered, “No, because we’d be 0-4.”
Later he was asked if he was worried that the losses would have a snow-balling effect downwards with regards to morale in the locker room. He responded, “No, we’re probably lucky that we’re playing the best team in the country because that’ll pick our kids up, and they’ll know the challenge.”
That challenge was top-ranked Clemson, who came into the game as defending national champions and riding a 19-game win streak. Brown was right, his team knew the challenge and they rose to that challenge all day long against Dabo Swinney’s Tigers.
After the game, Swinney said his team was “outplayed.”
North Carolina had to do a few things to have a chance in this game. First, they had to play well. Check. Second, they had to win the turnover battle. Check. Third, they had to limit self-inflicted wounds like penalties. Check. Fourth, they had to contain Clemson’s run-game. Check. Finally, they had to be opportunistic and take their shots when they had a chance. Check.
The Tar Heels did everything Brown asked of them in the week leading up to the game. They had what he described as “a fun week to coach. Much more fun than the two previous weeks.”
Swinney complemented the Tar Heels’ game plan as well. It was clear to him that Brown and his staff wanted their team to force Clemson’s offense into difficult situations. They played a lot of different coverages to try and confuse Trevor Lawrence, and they tried to force Clemson to beat them running the ball. The Tar Heels accomplished that as they held Lawrence well below his normal production and they held the Tigers’ dangerous running game to 125 yards, which was about 100 yards less than their normal average.
Swinney also said Carolina wanted to force Clemson to have long, drawn-out drives that could force the Tigers into some unforced errors. The Tar Heels were successful there as well. Clemson had a long drive to start the game that ended with a missed field goal. The Tigers had numerous procedure penalties throughout the game that got them behind the chains in crucial down-and-distance situations that forced them into punts. Clemson also had the lone turnover in the game which led to a quick score by the Tar Heels.
All of this would seem to point to a Carolina victory. However, let’s not forget that Swinney’s team didn’t win 19 games in a row and a national championship by accident. In fact, about a year ago to the day, Clemson had to come back to beat Syracuse and keep their championship hopes alive. Championship teams find ways to win, and that’s what the Tigers did in Chapel Hill. When they needed a big play, they found a way to make it.
First, the Tigers had a crucial 10-play, 78-yard drive down the field to score a touchdown right before the half to tie the game. That drive included a big completion on third-and-long to keep the drive alive.
Then in the 4th quarter, Clemson stopped North Carolina on three straight plays, including 4th down, when the Tar Heels only needed a yard for a first down on any of those three plays. The Tigers followed up that 4th-down stand quickly as Lawrence hit Tee Higgins for 38-yard touchdown on another third-and-long play to take the lead.
But North Carolina wasn’t about to go down without a fight. True freshman quarterback, Sam Howell, led the Tar Heel offense right back down the field. After converting on two fourth downs, running back Javonte Williams scored from a yard out to pull the Tar Heels to within one point of the Tigers.
Right away, it was evident that Brown decided to go for the two-point conversion to win the game.
After the game he explained, “We were tired. We had 2-3 guys limping on the series before on defense. They’ve got a lot of depth. I’ve always had a theory that the longer the game goes, the best team wins, and they’ve got the best team.”
What was going on in the minds of the Clemson staff?
Dabo commented after the game, “I wasn’t surprised. I was glad they called a timeout. I told Brent they’re going to go for two right here if they score.”
Then Dabo said that defensive coordinator, Brent Venables, told him, “We’re probably going to get the speed option. Put the ball in the quarterback’s hands and see if they can find a crease on us.”
Well, that’s why Venables is paid as much money as some head coaches in college football. It’s why Clemson has only given up one two-point conversion in 14 attempts since Swinney became the head coach.
Venables was spot on as the Tar Heels came out and ran the speed option on the two-point attempt. Earlier in the season, North Carolina had successfully run the speed option on a two-point conversion in the win against South Carolina. This time the Tigers were ready for it and stopped the Tar Heels to win the game. Once again, they made the play they needed to win the game.
Asked if there was a debate about going for two, Brown responded, “No. There was one guy making that decision and it was me.”
As for the play call itself Brown said, “I asked Phil, ‘Do you have a play that you think is going to score to win the game, beat the #1 team in the country?’ and he said, ‘Yes,’ and we ran it and it didn’t work.”
He added, “That was the best chance for us to win the game. If I had to do it again, I’d do it. I’d run a different play since that one didn’t work.”
In the end, the reigning national champions left Chapel Hill with their 20th win in a row. They will certainly be in the national championship conversation again at the end of the season.
The real question is, was this game like that 1990 Georgia Tech game for Mack Brown’s Tar Heels? Will going toe-to-toe with the possible national champions once again be the turning point for his program?
Time will tell, and it starts this week in Atlanta against…Georgia Tech.