Holliday: The Mack Brown turnaround takes a big step forward

Chapel Hill, N.C. — North Carolina’s bowl hopes looked anything but certain early in the third quarter at Carter-Finley Stadium. NC State led 10-6, having held the Tar Heels to 24 yards rushing in the first half. UNC went three and out on its first possession of the second half, getting zero yards on three rushes, and punting for a fourth time. NC State took over at its own 31, and Devin Leary threw downfield to an open receiver. UNC’s Storm Duck, a step or two behind on the play, sprinted toward the receiver and knocked the ball away. Without that pass breakup, NC State gets at least a field goal and maybe a touchdown to go up 17-6. Instead, Leary, after a three yard run from Bam Knight, needed seven yards on third down. His pass was intercepted by UNC’s Don Chapman. And suddenly, the game took a dramatic turn.

With UNC taking over at the NC State 47, Javonte Williams caught a pass out of the backfield from Sam Howell, stepped out of a tackle, and raced to the NC State 26. Next play, Williams ran through the red zone to the end zone. UNC was off and running.

Bypassing the red zone whenever possible would seem important to UNC right now. The Tar Heels, at the time of Williams’ score had produced just 12 touchdowns in 29 red zone visits in ACC games, a paltry touchdown percentage of 41%. Indeed, UNC had settled for field goals on two trips to the red zone in the first half against State. But Williams’ touchdown added to the snowball effect that began with the two plays by UNC’s secondary. And soon the snowball effect became a landslide.

A great defensive effort by Chazz Surratt sacked Leary on State’s next series and forced a punt. Nine plays later, UNC reached the outskirts of the red zone, the Wolfpack 22. Howell threw a swing pass to Javonte Williams for 11 yards, putting the Tar Heels squarely in the red zone at the State 11. The swing pass worked so well the Heels ran it again, with Williams catching the ball near the line of scrimmage and bolting for the end zone. Who knew the swing pass could be an antidote for the “red zone blues?”

UNC operated without the football just three plays. Then Jeremiah Gemmel forced a Bam Knight fumble and recovered the loose ball in NC State territory. The offense, now in rhythm, quickly negotiated the 43 yards with Javonte Williams scoring his third touchdown and yes, this was also a red zone touchdown. UNC, in the span of eight minutes, scored 21 points-and went looking for more.

The visitors found more. Many more. Leary threw a second interception. Howell passed 52 yards to the dynamic Dyami Brown. That boosted the Tar Heel output in the third quarter to 28 points. UNC for whatever reason had been outscored 69-47 in games not involving Mercer. Howell later threw another touchdown pass to Dazz Newsome, giving him three TD tosses on the night and 35 for the season. DeShaun Watson with 41, Jameis Winston with 40, and Tahj Boyd with 36 are the only ACC quarterbacks who have thrown for more touchdowns in a season than Howell, and none of them were freshmen at the time. Howell finished the game hitting 23-33 for 401 yards. UNC, after rushing for a mere one yard per play in the first half, gained 156 yards on 23 carries in the second half-almost seven yards per play.

The Tar Heel defense stepped up as well, holding NCSU to 130 total yards in the second half, while forcing four turnovers.

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Impact of bowl eligibility

So now, instead of calling it a season, UNC’s coaching staff can go recruiting for the next two weeks having earned a bowl bid, no doubt selling the fact that the program jumped from two wins to six wins under Mack Brown. There are ten seniors listed on UNC’s three-deep roster. Brown had promised UNC would win immediately and now these seniors will end their Carolina careers in December, not November. At the same time, the head coach can tell 2020 recruits there will be some positions open, with the graduation of players like Myles Dorn, Jason Strowbridge, Aaron Crawford, Charlie Heck, and Antonio Williams. But more than that, the UNC staff can sell program momentum in pursuing prospects for the class of 2021. UNC has an exciting offense and arguably the best young quarterback in the country. This presents an opportunity to recruit big-time offensive linemen and potent players at the skill positions who want to play with a talent like Howell. Recruiting defensive athletes won’t be quite as easy, but Brown and his staff will look high and low for players who can get stops, force turnovers, and put the offense back on the field.

The potential recruiting bump is just one benefit from joining the universe of bowl eligibility. UNC now gets 15 extra practices in December. The additional workouts should assure that backs and receivers keep their skills sharp into the beginning of the new year. More importantly, December football provides extra reps for young players, giving those freshmen and sophomores the background they will need to compete for spots on next season’s depth chart. In short, getting a bowl bid effectively doubles the impact of spring practice in terms of preparation for 2020.

UNC’s seniors should view the bowl trip as a reward for keeping the faith and providing leadership that helped transform the UNC program from two season cellar dweller to conference contender. For everyone else, bowl practice essentially represents the beginning of next season, though of course the outcome of the game will be attached to 2019. But the nucleus of UNC’s 2020 team will come from the 36 underclassmen which fill most of the slots on the offensive and defensive depth charts, along with the returnees from special teams. Add to this the talent from a highly rated class of new recruits and UNC should be in position to replace the many close losses of 2019 with some decisive wins in 2020. When Mack Brown, upon returning as coach 372 days ago, said he expected to win, the 2019 season presented the biggest question mark. UNC didn’t win as often as Brown wanted to win or planned to win. But the bowl bid means these Tar Heels got enough wins.

Where will this team spend the holidays? Most probably in a Tier One Bowl. In a season with some bad bounces, UNC caught a big break when both 7-5 Pitt and 7-5 Louisville lost on Saturday. Had either team finished 8-4, that would have effectively locked the Tar Heels out of Tier One. By ACC rule, a 6-6 team cannot jump an 8-4 team. But a 6-6 team can in the bowl pecking order, move ahead of a team which has just one more win. UNC, with its high-powered offense, and a fan base that has seen just two desirable bowl destinations in the past decade, should be as attractive as any 6-6 team can be-and maybe more than any 7-5 teams. The Tar Heels could spend Christmas in New York playing in the Pinstripe Bowl. There is also the possibility UNC could finish the season where it started-in Bank of America Stadium. While the bright lights of New York City have great appeal to players and fans, Charlotte’s Belk Bowl is an easy drive for the Tar Heel faithful. And it would be warmer.

But either destination surpasses what could have been-a Tier Two Bowl, or no bowl at all. Had UNC not rallied in the second half against NC State, the Mack Brown turnaround would still show progress for the first year. But by getting the sixth win and the bowl bid-assuming Howell and all those talented skill players around him come back next season-Brown’s quest to return the UNC program to the place he left it in 1997 should now be accelerated. And perhaps rapidly accelerated.

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