By R.L. Bynum
CHARLOTTE — The Air Raid warnings went off in the fourth quarter. There was little that South Carolina could do to combat them.
North Carolina offensive coordinator Phil Longo’s Air Raid offense, with true-freshman Sam Howell deftly at the controls, was run conservatively in the first half. It got unleashed in the second half, though, as UNC put together two 95-yard-plus scoring drives to lead a come-from-behind 24–20 opening-game victory over South Carolina.
Mack (Brown) is back, and so is the killer instinct in the fourth quarter that was lacking so much during last season’s 2–10 finish.
Howell’s two fourth-quarter touchdown passes and Myles Wolfolk’s two interceptions in the final 2:48 left gave UNC its first season-opening victory against a Power 5 opponent since Mack Brown’s 1997 team beat Indiana. The Tar Heels had lost 11 consecutive times in that situation before Saturday night.
Howell, the first true freshman to start a season opener in UNC program history, dealt with a couple of drops. But wide receiver Dyami Brown’s magnificent touchdown catch in the corner of the end zone while looking into the sun to start the fourth quarter was the start of turning the game around and gave UNC the lead for good.
“So pretty much, I just had to make a play with contact. And I just concentrated on the ball,” said Dyami Brown, who had 69 receiving yards. “When you concentrate on the ball, you make plays. I was trying to get it with one hand and tipped it up a little bit and grabbed it with two.”
But what made the catch amazing was that he was looking into the sunset.
“Yeah, the ball was a little bit in the sun,” Brown said. “But, at that point, I had to look at the bottom of the sun and see what the catch point was. When the ball is the sun, you catch the bottom of the sun and the ball was there.”
He makes a very difficult play sound so easy.
Howell later threaded a pass to Dazz Newsome along the right sideline for 31 yards and another one for 23 yards later before tossing a 17-yard touchdown pass to Bo Corrales, all in the final quarter.
UNC’s running depth wore down South Carolina once the Tar Heels opened up the offense, as Javonte Williams ran for 104 yards, Michael Carter for 82 and Antonio Williams for 53.
Staying conservative early with young quarterback
We heard all about Howell’s strong throwing arm, but the play-calling from Longo gave him few chances to show it off in the first half.
Most of Howell’s passes were off play action, with many quick, short tosses. When the Tar Heels pushed toward the end zone, running up the middle seemed to be the only option.
Mack Brown says they intentionally were conservative in the first half, but were ready for a more aggressive second-half strategy.
“Then we felt like at that time, you know, we’ve got to turn him loose. We’ve got to let him go,” Brown said. “He just played a tremendous second half.
“We’ve got great running backs, but people are going to stack the box unless we can throw the ball outside,” Brown said. “And we also felt like in the second half, we had to start throwing the ball deep because they were pressing us and they were doing what we call bear coverage for the big guy over the center.”
Although he took plenty of hits, there was no apparent panic in his game, as he completed 15 of 24 passes for 245 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. He ran for 30 yards on top of that.
“He got hit too many times,” Carter said. “But he just kept getting back up and making plays.”
Defense inconsistent, but shows moxie in the end
The blown tackles were vexing. The pass coverage was totally blown on South Carolina’s third-quarter touchdown pass. There were breakdowns along the line.
The defense had to clean up special-teams breakdowns a couple of time, the biggest on a long punt return late in the fourth quarter. A Wolfolk interception took care of that.
But, overall, North Carolina’s defense under new defensive coordinator Jay Bateman showed signs of toughness despite playing without key defenders.
Cornerback Patrice Rene had to sit out the first half for his involvement in a fight at the end of the loss to N.C. State and linebacker Dominique Ross was suspended. Then, a first-quarter injury put cornerback Trey Morrison out of the game.
UNC allowed South Carolina to gain 7.1 yards per play in the first quarter, but only allowed 3.3 yards per play for the final three quarters.
With some tweaking and better execution, Bateman’s scheme shows promise. They made plays when they needed them, holding the Gamecocks to 3 of 12 on third-down conversions.
Inside linebacker Chazz Surratt, a converted quarterback, was all over the field. He missed a tackle on South Carolina’s first touchdown but showed his defensive chops most of the game, finishing with a team-high 12 tackles (three of them solo), one sack, one broken-up pass and he hurried the quarterback once.
“It was kind of surreal at first being on the other side of the ball,” Surratt said. “But I’ve gotten more comfortable taking reps in practice.”
After UNC’s go-ahead touchdown, Aaron Crawford’s sack on third down of the Gamecocks’ next possession was huge.
Penalty issues have to be resolved
The Tar Heels only had one turnover (Howell’s fumble), but untimely penalties hurt them for most of the game.
The biggest was a pass-interference penalty on third down with 3:37 left in the game against DeAndre Hollins that Wolfork’s first interception took care of.
UNC committed 10 penalties for 90 yards. UNC only exceeded that yardage total twice last season, with 115 in the loss at Duke and with 124 in the season-opening loss at California. Carolina had 10 penalties at Duke and 13 at California.
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