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UNC Finds More Magic Against Miami

By Dave Holcomb
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In two games under coach Mack Brown, the Tar Heels have two fourth-quarter comeback victories.

Fourth quarters couldn’t have been any more unkind to the North Carolina Tar Heels last season.

They didn’t hold many leads in the final 15 minutes a year ago, but the Tar Heels lost three of the five games in which they did hold the advantage heading into the final stanza. Maybe more incredibly, in its two wins, North Carolina didn’t score in the fourth quarter, counting on the defense to hold onto the lead.

But that’s not the case anymore. In two games under coach Mack Brown, the Tar Heels have two fourth-quarter comeback victories. Behind its latest late magic, North Carolina has thrown itself into the Coastal Division race after beating Miami, 28-25, in Chapel Hill on Saturday night.

For awhile, it looked like North Carolina was going to succumb to another fourth-quarter collapse to Miami. The Tar Heels led by 14 points midway through the second quarter, but the Hurricanes answered with 22 of the next 25 points to take a five-point lead with under five minutes remaining.

On the ensuing drive, North Carolina’s comeback hopes looked very dim, as the team faced a fourth-and-17 with about three minutes left. But Brown’s first true gamble back on the sideline paid off.

Going for it on fourth-and-17 at their own 40-yard line, freshman quarterback Sam Howell completed a 20-yard pass to Rontavius Groves for a first down.

With one timeout remaining, it made sense that North Carolina was in four-down territory, but 17 yards to go made it a very risky choice, especially after Miami recorded two straight sacks on the prior two plays.

But Brown seems to be coaching the Tar Heels with a more carefree style. Not that he doesn’t care -- he certainly does -- but in the twilight of his career, he seems to possess more perspective on how quickly this can all be taken from him. At Texas, he went from the national championship game to losing his job in just four years.

Maybe because of that, he’s going to go down swinging this season like electing to stick with the offense on fourth-and-17.

Whatever the logic behind it, it worked Saturday, and North Carolina only needed five more plays to drive the final 40 yards to the end zone for the go-ahead score. The Tar Heels added a two-point conversion to ensure a field goal wouldn’t beat them.

Howell was sensational in the fourth quarter again and is quickly gaining a reputation as a big-moment quarterback. Overall, he went 16 of 24 for 274 yards and two touchdowns. It’s only been two games, but his 10.8 yards per pass average through his first two college starts is incredible nonetheless.

Miami can mostly point to its slow start in the first quarter Saturday night as its reason for falling to 0-2 for the first time since 1978, but the Hurricanes special-team blunders were extremely costly in their comeback attempt too.

Kicker Bubba Baxa went 2-of-4 on field-goal attempts with his last miss coming from 49 yards away in the final 10 seconds. The hard-pressure kick became even more difficult when the Miami holder didn’t turn the laces in the right direction.

On Miami’s second-to-last touchdown, Baxa saw his extra-point attempt blocked. That wasn’t his fault either, as the Hurricanes’ blocking broke down right up the middle. The point would have made the game tied at 20, and when Miami scored its next touchdown, the Hurricanes probably would have kicked the extra point again to go ahead 27-20.

Instead, the Hurricanes chased points -- rightfully so -- after reaching the end zone again with under five minutes to play in an attempt to get the seven-point lead. But Miami missed its two-point conversion and then the Tar Heels converted theirs following their touchdown.

Not even counting the missed field goals, Miami could account for three points with the blocked extra point, its own failed two-point conversion and North Carolina’s successful two-point try. If Miami avoids the blocked extra point and goes up 27-20, the Tar Heels probably don’t attempt a two-pointer after scoring their late fourth-quarter touchdown and simply settle for tying the game with about a minute left.

In that scenario, Baxa’s final kick would have won the game for Miami rather than tie it and a miss would have led to overtime.

Despite the rough special teams outing, the Hurricanes have things they can build upon, especially on offense. After a poor first quarter which saw Miami post zero rushing yards, the Hurricanes ground game broke out in the second quarter. DeeJay Dallas and Cam’Ron Harris both finished averaging at least 6.0 yards per rush.

Trailing for most of the game probably led to more passing attempts, and it’s not as though Miami quarterback Jarren Williams played horribly -- he turned in a very nice performance, going 30-for-39 with 309 yards and two touchdowns -- but Dallas and Harris only combined for 24 rushing attempts despite that high rushing average.

Miami needs to establish its rushing attack earlier in its next conference game against Virginia Tech in a few weeks and then stick to it if it’s anywhere near as successful as it was in Chapel Hill on Saturday.

The 0-2 start is disappointing for Miami, and some will spin it as a terrible beginning to the Manny Diaz era. The truth is, though, the Hurricanes gave Florida a much tougher game on a neutral site than anyone expected and then played even better in front of a surprisingly raucous North Carolina crowd.

While the Hurricanes are in a hole when it comes to the Coastal division race, that shouldn’t be all that alarming either. One loss isn’t deadly in this division, and Miami shouldn’t be expected to win the division crown under first-year coach Manny Diaz anyway.

The important thing is the Hurricanes continue to show tangible improvements, and they have through two weeks. Miami was a couple special teams gaffes away from a road victory or at least overtime.

For North Carolina, the Brown era couldn’t have started any better, and the Tar Heels have officially thrown their hat into the Coastal division race.