For five years, Mack Brown watched college football games and commented on them and got to say what he would do without any consequences. And whenever it came down to a decision to kick an extra point to tie or go for two to win, Brown always leaned toward the latter.
The idea that he would someday soon have that same decision to make may have seemed far-fetched, yet there Brown found himself Saturday night, as the sun set on Kenan Stadium, back on the North Carolina sideline, down one point to the No. 1 team in the country with a minute and change to go and the same decision to make.
It wasn’t a question of how Brown could make the call to go for two and the win against Clemson at that point.
“How could I not?” Brown said afterward, after quarterback Sam Howell was stopped at the goal line to deny North Carolina the upset as Clemson escaped with a 21-20 win.
Amid all the second-guessing, of the decision to go for two and of the play call, two separate and very different debates, there will be none on the part of the coach. Nor should there be.
It was the right decision to go for two. And as for the speed option that Clemson was able to snuff at the right pylon? There’s no answer to that debate, only the caveat that no one would be questioning it had it worked.
And it nearly did. Howell shrugged off the option pitch as he ran to his right and stuck an arm into the chest of Clemson’s Xavier Thomas, and might have been able to squeak out the last yard, but Clemson’s James Skalki came running across from out of Howell’s field of vision to his left and knocked him backward and the ball out of his hands.
But the decision itself to go for two was incontrovertible. The Tar Heels had an answer for Clemson on both sides of the ball all night, until North Carolina went for it on fourth-and-1 earlier in the fourth quarter with the score tied, and not only failed to convert but let Clemson drive down the field for the go-ahead touchdown.
On North Carolina’s final drive, the Tar Heels twice converted fourth downs, Riverboat Mack throwing in all his chips, rolling the dice, never looking back. By the time Javonte Williams plunged in from 3 yards out with 76 seconds to go, there wasn’t even a question in Brown’s mind. North Carolina’s defense was gassed. Whatever the odds were to pull off that two-point conversion, the odds the Tar Heels could stop Clemson were worse, in the final minute of regulation or overtime.
“There was one guy making that decision,” Brown said. “It was me.”
North Carolina is now 2-3, through the toughest part of its schedule, having played five games that came down to the final possession. The Tar Heels lost five of those last season. Given the circumstances, that’s just fine, especially since it may all be downhill from here for North Carolina. In the big picture, the Tar Heels are winning games they previously would have lost, and Howell is a star in the making.
In the immediate aftermath, though, as Howell trudged off the field with Jordan Tucker’s arm around him, there was no avoiding the realization that chances like this don’t come along every week. Clemson isn’t invincible, but the Tigers don’t often look this vulnerable, rarely let their playoff chances come down to a single play. Maybe once or twice a season. For North Carolina to be on the other side, maybe once or twice a decade.
Brown waited five years for that moment, to have a headset back on and make that call with the game on the line, Clemson’s national title hopes potentially hanging in the balance. He had to go for two. North Carolina had to go for the win.
How could he not?