Luke DeCock

It’s not magic – it’s just Mack Brown. And just like that, UNC football is fun again

You thought Mack Brown was going to wave a magic wand? Pull a rabbit out of his hat? Conjure up some kind of voodoo to instantly turn everything around at North Carolina, just because he’s Mack Brown? And with a true freshman quarterback to boot?

Well, yeah.

Maybe it was that easy. It’s not magic. But it was Mack.

“Everything we told these kids that would happen, happened,” Brown said. “That makes me so happy.”

Sam Howell led the Tar Heels on touchdown drives of 95 and 98 yards in the fourth quarter in his collegiate debut to give Brown a victory in his do-over debut at UNC, ending two decades of Day 1 misery for North Carolina with a 24-20 win over South Carolina on Saturday.

It was, in that one quarter, everything North Carolina hoped Brown would bring back with him: An immediate impact.

And a win.

North Carolina coach Mack Brown greets quarterback Sam Howell (7) after he completed a touchdown pass to Dyami Brown in the fourth quarter against South Carolina on Saturday, August 31, 2019 at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C. Howell completed 15 of 24 passes for 245 yards and two touchdowns. Robert Willett

It was everything the Tar Heels have lacked in recent years, from the composure under fire to the lack of inevitable self-sabotage to a season-opening win over a Power 5 opponent for the first time since 1997, Brown’s first final year at North Carolina.

Suddenly, the Tar Heels, so bereft of confidence the past two seasons and even in training camp, have every reason to believe.

“I’ve never seen a happier group in the dressing room than they were tonight,” Brown said. “The ‘05 national championship team (at Texas) was never any happier than this group was.”

There’s still a long road ahead, with enough in this North Carolina performance to give Brown and his coaching staff indigestion — Brown held up a flip card covered in scribbles to open his press conference — but it’s clearly not as long as Brown might have thought, or feared. Howell, for one thing, is a place to start. A defense that finally stopped making mistakes and started making tackles is another.

The first half, with all the penalties — including the delay of game on the first offensive play — and a blocked kick and the continually anemic tackling, was the kind of performance that could get Larry Fedora fired, again.

Maybe it took that long to shake off the cobwebs of the previous regime, because the second half was something else entirely. Aside from the defensive confusion that gifted South Carolina a touchdown and a 20-9 lead, the Tar Heels were effective on both sides of the ball, Howell in particular, and even a little lucky.

One Howell pass went through a defender’s hands before Toe Groves pulled it in; Dyami Brown’s touchdown catch was a rumbling, stumbling, bobbling, falling, hold-your-breath, how-did-he-hold-on grab.

Impossibly conservative in the first half to protect Howell, especially in the red zone, the Tar Heels opened up the playbook in the second half. They were able to run the ball from the start, but once Howell started slinging it, South Carolina was out of answers.

And after North Carolina in 2015 and N.C. State in 2017 were both Gamecocked in Charlotte, the Tar Heels exacted some measure of revenge not only to end their season-opening drought against Power 5 opponents but against South Carolina, a team the Tar Heels had not beaten since 1991, also under Brown.

Everything old is new again, other than the UNC fans chanting “ACC” at the end. That’s just new new.

There was a leap of faith in bringing Brown back, given the time he spent on the bench at ESPN, and this alone doesn’t necessarily make it worthwhile. But you fold this in with the success on the recruiting trail, and the future looks a little brighter than it did Saturday morning. On Brown’s list of things that need work: The victory formation. The Tar Heels haven’t had a lot of practice.

“They’ve had a lot of bad things happen the past few years,” Brown said. “We just told them, this is new.”

It doesn’t get any easier for North Carolina, with Miami coming to Chapel Hill next Saturday night, but the Tar Heels will enter that game with newfound belief and tangible results, with the positive reinforcement only a win can deliver, with their coach in tears after successfully recapturing the old magic.

They are living in the Macktacular Now, and it’s officially an unfamiliar new era under the familiar old coach.

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer

Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered four Final Fours, the Summer Olympics, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.