CHAPEL HILL — A chant broke out among members of the sellout crowd, many still in a state of semi-disbelief, as it filed out of Kenan Stadium late Saturday night.
“Mack is back,” they yelled.
It’s true, Mack Brown is back in Chapel Hill, coaching the North Carolina football team again after a two-decade absence. But the reason his Tar Heels are “back,” or at least well on their way there, is because of another, much younger new arrival.
Freshman quarterback Sam Howell has played only two games in his fledgling college career. In both, he’s engineered winning fourth quarter comebacks that defy all reasonable logic.
A week after stunning South Carolina with a pair of 90-plus yard drives over the final 15 minutes in Charlotte, Howell went one better in his home debut by leading UNC to an even more improbable victory.
Trailing Miami by five with time running out, the poised youngster converted a fourth-and-17 play to keep the Tar Heels’ final possession alive. He then hit Dazz Newsome with a perfectly placed pass in the corner of the end zone for the touchdown that gave UNC a 28-25 victory and its first 2-0 start since 2014.
“That boy’s cold. He bad,” said outside linebacker Tomon Fox, who led a vastly improved Tar Heels defense with a career-high three sacks. “Our offense was already hot, but with the addition of Sam, he’s like the fuel to the fire.”
Still riding the wave of emotion from last week’s victory and stoked by a sellout crowd that produced an electric atmosphere in the new renovated stadium, Howell came out smoking by throwing for 134 yards and a touchdown in the first quarter alone.
It was flying start that saw UNC (2-0, 1-0 ACC) jump out to a 17-3 advantage on a 62-yard strike from Howell to Dyami Brown, a short run by Javonte Williams and a Noah Ruggles field goal. It was a lead the Tar Heels would hold onto — though precariously at times — for the next 50 minutes of game time.
But when Miami’s Jarren Williams hit tight end Will Mallory with an 11-yard touchdown pass to give the Hurricanes (0-2, 0-1) their first lead at 25-20 with 4:08 remaining, it appeared as though Brown and his resurgent team had finally run out of magic.
That’s when Howell pulled a rabbit out of his hat.
The first sleight of hand came on fourth-and-17 at the UNC 40 with 2:55 remaining. Brown had originally thought about punting in that situation, especially since Howell had been sacked on the two previous plays.
And if he’d have had a timeout or two remaining, he might have done that. Instead, he decided to put his trust in his young quarterback.
“We felt that after having two straight sacks, that our odds of a fourth-and-17 were better than punting and stopping them in three downs,” Brown said. “It looked really bad or awful, and then Sam stepped up and hit Toe Groves. It was just remarkable the way he played down the stretch.”
Howell evaded pressure on the fourth down play before finding Groves open 20 yards downfield.
“It wasn’t really a great throw,” the young quarterback said. “I put it in a place where he could make a play and he made it.”
Four plays later — and just after teammate Beau Corrales dropped a sure touchdown in the end zone, Howell put another pass right on the money. And this one had to be precise, dropping the ball over defender Gurvan Hall Jr. into Newsome’s hands as he dragged his foot inbounds before falling to the ground with 1:01 remaining.
“Dazz ran a great route. He had some space so I just tried to get him the ball and he made a great play,” he said. “I have confidence in myself and I have confidence in his team.”
Still, the game wasn’t over.
Although UNC converted the two-point conversion to give itself a three-point cushion, it appeared that it might have left too much time on the clock when it scored. Williams drove the Hurricanes quickly into position for at least the tying field goal.
But after stalling at the Tar Heels’ 32, Bubba Baxa’s 49-yard attempt sailed wide left to set off the second wild celebration of the young season.
“For a team that struggled over the past couple of years to win fourth quarter games, I’m so happy to see them do it two weeks in a row,” said Brown, who coached his first home game at UNC since November 1997. “It’s really special. It was a team win. The whole team and the staff made a whole bunch of mistakes again. But the whole team made enough good plays in all three phases to win the game.”
And suddenly, anything seems possible.
In a different area of the Kenan concourse shortly after the game ended, another group of fans had something else to chant.
“We want Clemson,” they yelled.
Brown, however, wasn’t having any of that.
“They don’t have to play,” the Hall of Fame coach said with a chuckle. “(Right now) we don’t want anybody but a good night’s sleep.”