By R.L. Bynum
CHAPEL HILL — All but one previous game this season was decided on the last couple of plays, so this Carolina football experience Saturday at Kenan Stadium was as odd as the weather was bad.
On a chilly day with steady rain much of the game, it was all but over in the first 3:21 when the Tar Heels jumped ahead of FCS Mercer by two touchdowns.
It didn’t take long for it to become a long day for Mercer. It took the opening kickoff and Don Chapman forced a fumble, recovered by Chaz Surratt, on the game’s first play. By the end of the opening period, UNC had forced two turnovers and was up by three scores.
From there, the goal was to avoid injuries, get plenty of reserves in and begin to focus on a win next Saturday at rival N.C. State to earn a bowl bid. Mission accomplished after a 56-7 win for UNC (5-6) over the Bears (4-8), which was as easy as most expected.
There were no new injuries and the Tar Heels are full of confidence headed into their battle with the Wolfpack.
“So, we got to play basically everybody that was eligible on our team, which helps morale, and we didn’t get anybody hurt,” Coach Mack Brown said. “So, it was the perfect night for us. It also was a way to send the seniors out on a very high note. And it was important for them to do that.”
UNC took advantage of a Mercer defense that’s ranked 123rd out of 124 FCS teams against the run at 259.5 yards per game (which UNC bettered early in the second half). The Tar Heels had 195 by halftime and finished with a season-high 376 (the previous high was 238 against South Carolina). UNC only had four rushing touchdowns all season before running for five against Mercer.
Michael Carter tied his season-high of 99 rushing yards (Clemson) by halftime and ended up with 159 and three touchdowns, both season-highs.
The eye-opening numbers were from true freshman Sam Howell, who only played in the first half. He threw for three touchdowns, keeping pace with Ohio State sophomore Justin Fields as the only quarterbacks in the country with multiple touchdown passes in every game this season.
Howell pushed his total to a school single-season record 32 touchdown passes, breaking Mitch Trubisky’s record of 30. Howell finished 10 of 13 for 152 yards to push his freshman single-season school passing yards record to 2,946.
“I think the thing that’s so impressive about Sam is you get the same guy every day,” Brown said. “And you get him every week. So, you think a freshman might be a little off his game and a little flat thinking about the game next week and all that. But he had fun; he likes to play.”
The 32 touchdown passes in 11 games are believed to be the most in FBS history by a true freshman, surpassing the 30 that Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence had in 15 games last season.
BOX SCORE (NCAA.COM)
Records are a passing fancy
Howell tied Trubisky’s school record for touchdown passes in a season with a perfectly timed pass to Dyami Brown on a beautiful 66-yard scoring play in the first quarter.
Howell’s short scoring pass to Jake Bargas broke the record.
The most beautiful pass didn’t count. He threw into double coverage late in the second quarter and laid it over Toe Groves’ shoulder on a would-be 68-yard scoring pass play. But a holding call negated it.
The list of ACC quarterbacks who have thrown for more than 32 touchdown passes in a season is impressive: Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and Tajh Boyd, Florida State’s Jameis Winston and Chris Weinke and N.C. State’s Philip Rivers.
Watson set the ACC record of 41 in 15 games in 2016. The most Howell will get, should the Tar Heels beat the Wolfpack next weekend, will be 14 games.
First things first
There were several individual firsts on Saturday, some that were surprising.
Touchdown runs in the first three minutes of the game by Carter and Antonio Williams were their first such scores this season.
Later in the opening period, freshman cornerback Storm Duck snagged his first career interception.
In the second quarter, senior tight end Jake Bargas’ 4-yard TD reception was his first of the season and freshman wide receiver Emery Simmons’ 33-yard scoring reception was his first.
Walk-on freshman quarterback Vincent Amendola, a former Leesville Road High School star, played for the first time. His first play was a handoff to Carter, who ran 60 yards for a touchdown. Amendola completed one pass for nine yards.
Sophomore running back British Brooks’ 12-yard scoring run in the third quarter was the first touchdown of his career.
Don’t sleep on practice
Junior UNC wide receiver Dazz Newsome was suspended for the game after breaking a team rule and wasn’t even on the sidelines. The offense? He overslept one day last week and missed one of UNC’s early-morning practices.
It’s safe to say that he’ll ensure that his alarm clock is fully functional next week.
Brown said that he told Newsome that if he did everything right the rest of the week that he’d be back for the State game.