By R.L. Bynum
CHAPEL HILL — Given North Carolina’s issues this season stopping mobile quarterbacks, the Tar Heels should have seen it coming.
They didn’t, and Virginia’s Bryce Perkins ran right by them. Repeatedly. This is a guy not known for his passing proficiency. But the senior quarterback did that, too.
All of that was too much for the Tar Heels, as Perkins ran for 112 yards, threw for 378 more and accounted for five touchdowns to lead the Cavaliers to a 38-31 win Saturday to take over the ACC Coastal Division lead.
“The problem we had tonight: We didn’t stop their best player,” UNC coach Mack Brown said. “And their best player is one of the best players in the country. And when you go into a game like this, you’ve got to stop him. We didn’t stop him on the run or the pass. In fact, his passing is what really surprised us.”
UNC had seen this before this season.
Wake Forest QB Jamie Newman rushed for 78, Appalachian State QB Zac Thomas ran for 70 yards and Virginia Tech QB Quincy Patterson ran for 128. The common thread is that the Tar Heels lost all of those games.
Nothing changed in that regard Saturday.
Perkins’ 490 total yards were a Virginia school record and the third-most by any UNC opponent. The only players to do better are current starting quarterbacks in the NFL: Duke’s Daniel Jones last season (547) and Louisville’s Lamar Jackson in 2017 (525).
Perkins’ favorite passing target was Terrell Jana, who had 13 catches for 146 yards. The 13 catches ties Rutgers’ Mohammed Sanu in 2011 and Wake Forest’s Michael Companaro in 2012 for second-most catches against UNC. Duke’s Jon Jensen has the record with 14 in 1994.
Virginia (6-3 overall) takes control in the Coastal at 4-2, and the division hopes for UNC (4-5 overall) were dealt a huge blow as it fell to 3-3.
UNC quarterback Sam Howell made six productive connections with Dyami Brown on the night. But they couldn’t make another one on fourth down with the game on the line with a minute left in the game.
“I think the biggest difference in the game is they were five for five in the red zone and we were one for three,” Coach Brown said. “This was going to be whoever scored the most and I’m just disappointed that we didn’t we didn’t finish it like we needed to.”
Noah Ruggles continued his resurgence after struggling at Virginia Tech, kicking a 37-yard field goal with 9:16 left to give UNC an early lead for his third consecutive converted attempt.
Helped by trickery on what first looked like a field-goal attempt and turned into a fourth-down conversion pass, Virginia quickly responded. The Cavaliers scored on a 1-yard touchdown run by Perkins with 2:46 left in the first quarter. Virginia added a chip-shot field goal of 21 yards from Brian Delaney.
The Tar Heels tied it at 10 when Howell found Dyami Brown at the right sideline. Brown sprinted the rest of the way on a 47-yard touchdown play with 7:17 left in the first half.
Those two connected again with 2:06 left in the first half on a 34-yard play. Howell seemed to underthrow Brown at the end zone. But Brown adjusted to make the catch and put UNC up 17-10.
Virginia tied it at 17 with 13 seconds left in the first half with a 78-yard, 13 play drive entirely from the air, capped by a Perkins to Hasise Dubois 6-yard touchdown pass.
Perkins quickly gave Virginia a 24-17 lead in the first 35 seconds of the second half with a 65-yard scoring run down the left sideline. It was the longest run against the Tar Heels this season.
Perkins engineered another drive that produced a TD on a 9-yard pop pass to Tanner Crowley to give Virginia a 31-17 lead with 7:32 left in the third quarter.
Howell found Antoine Green on a 50-yard pass play with 4:57 left to cut the Cavaliers’ lead to 31-24. But another Perkins TD pass, a 6-yard pass to Grant Misch, added to the lead.
Howell and Brown connected on a 42-yard play less than a minute later to cut Virginia’s led to 38-31.
Howell misfired on a pass intended for Beau Corrales on fourth-and-goal at the 6 with five minutes left, attempting to tie the game.
BOX SCORE (NCAA.COM)
Not many freshmen can take the controls of a Power 5 offense and be consistent right from the start. But Howell has done that.
With his four touchdown passes against the Cavaliers, he’s had at least two in every one of his nine career games. Howell also had at least four in three of the last four games and has nine touchdown passes of 40 yards or more this season.
Howell was 15 of 29 for 353 yards. His 350 total yards are the most by a UNC player against Virginia.
Howell moved past former N.C. State star Philip Rivers for the fourth-most touchdown passes for an ACC freshman with 26.
Dyami Brown already had career highs for receptions yards and touchdowns by halftime, this coming after going without any catches for the first time this season in the victory over Duke.
Brown finished with six catches for 202 yards and three touchdowns to become the seventh UNC receiver to collect more than 200 receiving yards in a game. His 151 first-half receiving yards were the most in any half by a Tar Heel since Dwight Jones had 188 in the first half against Virginia in 2010. The 202 yards were the most since Ryan Switzer collected 208 yards in 2016 against Pittsburgh.
Not only did he show his deft catching skills, he got numerous yards after the catch a couple of times by putting on some moves and turning up the speed.
Welcome returns for some Tar Heels
For the first time since suffering a “lower-body injury” in the victory over Miami in week 2, North Carolina had its veteran center Nick Polino back on the offensive line.
The graduate student, in his final season of eligibility, was a welcome addition to a line that has struggled with run and pass blocking because of injuries. Since his departure, sophomore Brian Anderson had filled in at center.
Anderson stayed at center against Virginia, with Polino playing at left guard.
UNC got badly needed help in the secondary with Trey Morrison and Storm Duck back in the starting lineup and Myles Wolfolk also returning.
It was cornerback Morrison’s first game since a broken arm knocked him out of the Georgia Tech victory. Duck got hurt on the first play of last week’s Duke win with what UNC called an upper-body injury.
Safety Myles Wolfolk didn’t start, but saw his first action since suffering a lower-body injury in the Appalachian State loss.
Triangle Sports Network: 401-323-8960, @tsportsnet