A lot of teams have moments that define their seasons, sometimes even their history.
‘The Shot,’ ‘The Drive,’ ‘The Fumble’ are all terms synonymous with big plays in crucial moments of huge games. It’s too early to tell how the season will go for North Carolina, but if coach Mack Brown continues to lead the Tar Heels on this trajectory to football rejuvenation and true freshman quarterback Sam Howell keeps playing beyond his years, ‘The 4th and 17’ might forever be etched in UNC football history after Saturday’s 28-25 comeback win over Miami.
Trailing by five with 2:55 remaining in the game, the Tar Heels started a drive on their own 25. The first two plays were positive; sophomore running back Javonte Williams rushed for 22 yards up the right side, and Howell hit sophomore receiver Dyami Brown for a gain of four. Then, UNC started going backwards. Howell was sacked by Miami senior linebacker Shaq Quarterman for a loss of four, then Howell was dropped by redshirt freshman defensive lineman Greg Rousseau for a loss of four.
The Tar Heels faced a 4th and 17 from their own 40, and a decision had to be made: punt and hope the defense could get a stop, or roll the dice and go for it with the Howell, the freshman quarterback.
Brown called his final timeout and met with offensive coordinator Phil Longo.
“We weren’t stopping them,” Brown told the media after the game. “So we thought about it, thought about going ahead and punting it.”
A punt meant the Tar Heels’ defense would have to force a three-and-out. The Hurricanes came away with points on four of their previous six drives, and only one of those drives didn’t end in North Carolina territory. Asking the defense, which surrendered 285 yards in the second half, to get a stop was a lot. And if Carolina forced a punt, there would be only 30 seconds left to score a touchdown.
“After having two straight sacks,” Brown said with a chuckle, “we felt our odds at a 4th and 17 were better than punting and stopping them in three downs. It looked really bad or awful. That’s about what we were looking at.”
Sam Howell and 4th and 17
Howell completed four of his previous nine pass attempts, but Longo dug into his playbook, calling a play the team hadn’t run through two games.
“We had a play we have a lot of confidence in,” Howell told the media after the game.
Lined up in the shotgun formation with Williams, the running back, to his left, Howell had a three-receiver set with junior wide receiver Rontavius Groves in the slot to the right of the field. Williams and senior tight end Carl Tucker stayed in to block, giving Howell extra protection, and the freshman quarterback from Monroe stepped into his throw, hitting Groves for a gain of 20.
“Toe (Groves) had a double move, he was wide open, made a great catch,” Howell said. “Really wasn’t a great throw, I just tried to put it in a place where he can make the play and he made it.”
Howell, who finished with 274 yards passing, hit Newsome five plays later for the game-winning touchdown, a 10-yard pass in the corner of the end zone. Junior running back Michael Carter rushed in for the successful two-point conversion and Miami missed a 49-yard, wide left field goal attempt on the ensuing drive that would have tied the game.
Before the play, the players had already made up their minds that they wanted to go for it.
“I did not want to punt the ball because I did not want to put the ball in their hands,” UNC junior receiver Dazz Newsome told the media after the game. “I don’t like being off the field not knowing what’s going to happen. I’d rather be on the field so I can have a little bit of control and make some plays.”
The win gave Carolina its second straight fourth-quarter comeback, pretty impressive for a team that struggled and lost in these types of games the past two seasons. Under Brown, and with an emerging star quarterback like Howell, fourth-quarter missteps are a thing of the past.
“Details and attitude,” senior safety Myles Dorn said when asked about the biggest different in the 2019 team. “We focus on the little things and just believing we are going to win. Before, we would get to the fourth and have doubt. There was no doubt that we were going to win this game.”