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Carolina quarterback Sam Howell signals for a touchdown after Javonte Williams crossed the goal line.

CHAPEL HILL — A game for the ages left Clemson sighing in victory and Carolina cheering a noble loss.

After a series of brave and risky decisions, Carolina coach Mack Brown pushed the top-ranked Tigers to their very limit before Clemson survived with its season in tact.

The 21-20 win might ultimately preserve a national title shot for the Tigers. But it enhanced the reputation of an aging coach who may or may not be in his twilight. We’ll wait and see now if Carolina’s season disappeared over the horizon of Kenan Stadium.

“This shows what we can be,” Brown said.

He told his players he wasn’t into moral victories, but he told them he’d never been prouder of a football team in 31 years of coaching.

A great game to the bitter end left fans from both schools gasping for air, but as a huge showing of Clemson fans stood in stunned silence when it ended, Carolina’s students rose and cheered their team for several minutes after it ended.

At the other end of the stadium, where the well-heeled Heels walked in and out of air conditioning all day, the seats were already empty.

Football season will pause in Chapel Hill now. Carolina will not play here again for another month. And while the road schedule is manageable — at Georgia Tech on Saturday and at Virginia Tech on Oct. 19 — when the Heels return to play Duke on Oct. 26, we’ll be days away from basketball season.

And no one understands that better than Brown.

He gave them a memory that will last seasons Saturday. But will it be enough? Was a courageous loss to top-ranked Clemson enough to kindle the flames of a flickering football fan base for one more month?

We’ll see.

We’ve been here before, and when Carolina returns for a homecoming game against Duke just 11 days before basketball season opens, will the same enthusiasm for football return, too?

It’s not 1997 anymore. But in all the years since Brown left UNC in a cloud of controversy and hurt feelings, Carolina is still a basketball school. On a sunny September day, with no one believing the Heels could beat the best team in the nation, Brown gave the fans something they hadn’t seen here in a generation, a reminder that Carolina can indeed be a football school and a basketball school, that one doesn’t necessarily eclipse the other.

It’s an age-old question here. And a constant irony.

One day after "Late Night with Roy," the football coach enjoyed a day in the sun, legitimizing his program once again in a loss that didn’t seem to hurt.

At least not to the fans.

They saw their team go for it on fourth down over and over again in a remarkable drive into the heart of the Clemson defense, scoring a touchdown with 1:17 to play as everyone held their breath and wondered whether Brown would go for two.

Of course he did.

“We were tired,” Brown said. “We had two or three guys limping on the series before on defense. They've got a lot of depth. I've always had a theory that the longer the game goes, the best team wins, and they've got the best team.”

The best team doesn’t always win, he told his players all week. And they bought in.

His message to a sold-out stadium watching one of the greatest football games in school history was unspoken but blunt.

“We can be a football school,” he said without saying it.

But in 1997, when they last had a chance to be a football school, the fans blinked.

We’ve reached that moment again it seems as Mack Brown has dragged what was left of the program into a national spotlight, at least for a day.

Homecoming is a month away.

And so is basketball.

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Contact Ed Hardin at 336-373-7069, and follow @Ed_Hardin on Twitter.

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