Inside UNC’s two-point conversion attempt - and why Mack Brown decided to go for it

When North Carolina scored a touchdown to cut Clemson’s lead to one point with 1:17 left, coach Mack Brown had two options.

He could have his team kick the extra point to tie the game, or he could go for two to take the lead.

Brown said multiple players on UNC’s defense were hobbling, and he thought Clemson had better chance to win if the game was extended to overtime.

So he chose to go for two.

North Carolina offensive coordinator Phil Longo and head coach Mack Brown confer before making the call to go for a two point conversion after scoring a touchdown late in the fourth quarter against Clemson on Saturday, September 28, 2019 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. Robert Willett

“My thought was, ‘go now, we’ve got momentum, they’re tired,” Brown told the media after UNC’s 21-20 loss to the Tigers on Saturday. “’They’re on the field.’ So that was the best chance for us to win the game.

“If I had to do it again, I’d run a different play since that one didn’t work.”

The Tar Heels ran a triple-option play, with an option for UNC freshman quarterback Sam Howell to hand the ball off to running back Javonte Williams, take it himself, or pitch it to wide receiver Dazz Newsome, who was to his right.

It was a similar play to one UNC ran on a two-point conversion attempt against South Carolina on Aug. 31. On that play, Howell had the option to pitch it to Javonte Williams or keep it. Howell kept it and scored.

“Brent (Venables, defensive coordinator) said we would probably get the speed option,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said after the game. “They’ll put the ball in the quarterback’s hands and see if they could find a crease on us.”

Venables guessed right.

The Tigers had all of the Tar Heels’ options covered. Howell went to his right and tried to run the ball in. He was stopped a little more than a yard shy of the goal line before he pitched the ball to Newsome, who was quickly knocked out of bounds by Clemson’s defense.

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

The stop sealed the game for the Tigers (5-0), as they ran the clock out after recovering the ensuing onside kick attempt.

Howell completed 15 of 27 passes attempts for 144 yards and two touchdowns.

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Optimism for UNC after Clemson loss

A UNC win would have been a game-changer for a program that has long grappled with the perception that football isn’t as important as basketball. The Tar Heels kept the game close against the No. 1 team in the country, but it wasn’t enough.

But there was optimism after it was over.

Brown said throughout the week that his team had some of its best practices all year. The players were focused and hungry to win.

The Tar Heels won the turnover margin, 1-0, held Clemson to 331 yards of total offense, and won the time of possession battle.

Clemson did not take its first lead of the game until 9:54 left in the fourth quarter.

When that happened, the Tar Heels could have folded.

North Carolina’s Javonte Williams (25) breaks open for a 12 yard gain to set up the Tar Heels’ last touchdown late in the fourth quarter on Saturday, September 28, 2019 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. Robert Willett

But Howell and the Tar Heels’ offense responded. They engineered a 16-play, 75-yard touchdown drive in 8:32, to cut the Tigers’ lead to one point.

“This shows us what we can be,” Brown said, who also said earlier in the week that UNC wanted to be the Clemson of the Coastal Division.

Tar Heels can be as good as they want

A close game against the top team was another step in the right direction for UNC. The Tar Heels wanted to see how they stacked up against the Tigers, who won the national championship last season, and turned some heads along the way.

When asked what he learned from the game, UNC running back Michael Carter, who rushed for 99 yards, said the Tar Heels can be as good as they want to be.

North Carolina’s Michael Carter (8) rushes for two yards to set up the Tar Heels’ touchdown in the second quarter against Clemson on Saturday, September 28, 2019 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. Robert Willett

“A lot credit to Clemson, but we feel like we can beat anybody on any week,” Carter said after the game Saturday. “And the key to that is having a good week of practice, going in watching film, and doing it every single week.

“And playing to a standard of ourselves, instead of playing up or down to our opponents. That’s kind of been the story. We play good teams well, and teams that people feel we should beat, not as good.”

The Tar Heels have a chance to rebound next Saturday at Georgia Tech (1-3, 0-1 ACC), which lost to Temple 24-2 on Saturday.

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Jonathan M. Alexander has been covering the North Carolina Tar Heels since May 2018. He previously covered Duke basketball and recruiting in the ACC. He is an alumnus of N.C. Central University.
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