Tar Heels finding success in calculated risks to keep high-powered offense on field

Robert Willett/rwillett@newsobserver.com

It’s not much of a gamble anymore. North Carolina coach Mack Brown is more than likely going for it on fourth down and fewer than 4 yards to go.

It happened on the first drive against Notre Dame. The Tar Heels faced a fourth-and-goal from the ND 4 and the drive ended with a touchdown pass from quarterback Drake Maye to receiver Josh Downs.

“We’re aggressive here and I’m not telling anybody anything any different than they already know,” UNC offensive coordinator Phil Longo said. “Coach Brown, when it’s strategic and and he thinks it’s a good time to be aggressive on fourth down, we’re going to go for it.”

The Heels are tied for third in the ACC with Virginia with eight attempts on fourth down. They are second in the league with a 75% conversion rate. This time last season, UNC was just 4-for-7 on fourth downs.

This is more than just going with what analytics call for in a situation. Last week against the Irish, Brown said he knew early on that they’d need touchdowns, instead of field goals, to win the game.

“I do feel like we want to score points and especially since we’re struggling some on defense,” Brown said. “There’s absolutely no guarantee that your field goal is not going to be blocked or you might miss it. And one of the really bad morale issues during the game to change momentum is you drive down and miss a field goal.”

Brown’s approach could stay the same on Saturday against Virginia Tech in UNC’s ACC opener. The weather could play a factor into whether or not Brown relies on his kicking game. And frankly, how well the defense is playing will also play a part in if he decides to go for it.

Maye is all for Brown’s approach, and he believes it gives the Heels an advantage.

“Playing Madden growing up, you never punted, you’re always going on fourth down,” Maye joked of the popular NFL video game. “Especially in third-and-long scenarios, it’s something in the back of my mind where I could say just get half of it. Or if it’s third-and-8 just get 6, it gives you the opportunity to go for it.”

Longo said it helps that Brown lets him know well in advance if he’ll have all four downs for just that reason. The third-down play call can sometimes change drastically when it’s known there will be two chances to get the first down.

“I’ve never been anywhere where the head coach tells you as early as he does when you have four downs,” Longo said. “And so that allows me not only to scheme and plan what I do on third down, but he tells me early enough that I can start thinking about that by field, zone or by game situation, before my second-down call.”

Carolina would prefer not to be in fourth-down situations at all. And as the Heels take on the Hokies, they hope a revamped running game will help toward that goal.

The Heels have been inconsistent running the ball, especially on first downs. In order to help jump-start their ground game, Longo said they were looking to limit the rotation to two running backs, similar to how they played when Javonte Williams and Michael Carter were splitting carries.

Longo said he wanted the players to have a chance to get into a rhythm during the game.

“They don’t have to worry about doing it from a full-season standpoint; I want them to lock into this week’s game plan,” Longo said. “... And then we’re gonna roll with those two guys on Saturday a little bit more than the four-man rotation that we’ve had.”

How to watch UNC vs Virginia Tech football game

The game will be broadcast on ACC Network. It is also available on the ESPN App with an ESPN+ subscription, and through various subscription apps that carry ACCN, such as Hulu and YouTube TV. The link to watch it is here.

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