Howell leads another fourth-quarter comeback for 2-0 Tar Heels
By R.L. Bynum
CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell really is a true freshman, although it’s hard to believe.
After another impressive fourth-quarter comeback on Saturday night, you have to wonder why it took the Tar Heels coaching staff so long to name him the starter. His poise and coolness under pressure were obvious.
Yes, he overthrew a few passes. But the Tar Heels have to feel confident about their chances in the next three seasons after Howell led them to a 28–25 victory over Miami in their ACC opener before a packed and raucous sold-out crowd at Kenan Stadium.
When a 49-yard field goal attempt by Miami’s Bubba Baxa, who had made a 50-yard field goal earlier, went wide left, the Tar Heels moved to 2-0 for the first time since 2014. Although it was a comeback, UNC only trailed for 3 minutes and 37 seconds of the game.
It’s the first time that UNC has won its first two games by four points or fewer since 1976 (a 37-36 victory over Pittsburgh and a 37-35 win over Florida State). The Tar Heels will try to go 3-0 for the first time since 2011 on Friday when it visits Wake Forest in what will be a non-conference game.
“And you have to be so excited for the way Sam Howell played at the end of the game,” said UNC coach Mack Brown, who called the atmosphere at Kenan the best he’s ever seen. “It was just remarkable the way he played down the stretch.”
Howell ultimately won an impressive battle with another freshman quarterback, Miami’s Jarren Williams. They both threw for two touchdowns and no interceptions, with Williams going 30 of 39 and Howell 16 of 24.
“He’s very confident,” Brown said of Howell. “The weirdest thing about him, he gets sacked, and he throws a touchdown pass. You can’t tell the difference in his demeanor. He’s very similar in both places. But he just kept hanging in there.”
Although the play-calling reverted to the conservative first-half strategy of the first half against South Carolina, Howell made the big plays when they were needed. First, he made a huge 20-yard pass play to Rontavius Groves on a fourth-and-17, then a touchdown toss to Dazz Newsome for the game-winning score with 1:01 left.
“I just have confidence in myself I’ve got confidence in this team. I have confidence in all 10 guys on the field.”
He’d be happy not to need any more fourth-quarter heroics.
“I think it’s good to have those experiences playing the game,” Howell said. “But, you know, I mean, honestly, for me, I just want I want to try to avoid those situations. Now there’s some drives in the game that we didn’t finish where we could have put the game away a lot earlier than we did.”
Howell’s 62-yard scoring strike to Dyami Brown in the first quarter was the longest touchdown pass by a Tar Heel since Mitch Trubisky hit Ryan Switzer on a 72-yard touchdown pass against The Citadel on Nov. 19, 2016.
BOX SCORE (NCAA.COM)
Center of rushing issues?
The running yards that came so easily against South Carolina were tougher to come by against Miami, and it got more challenging when senior center Nick Polino went down in the second quarter with an injury. He didn’t return.
Backup Brian Anderson, a sophomore, had been a major contributor the week before, but a pair of three-out-out Carolina drives followed his exit and the offense didn’t have quite the same punch.
UNC went from 171 total first-quarter yards to 5 total second-quarter yards. And the Tar Heels collected only 11 yards on the next five drives after Anderson’s exit before a 58-yard third-quarter drive produced a 40-yard Noah Ruggles field goal, basically all in the air.
Early in the second half, Howell had to fall on the ball after a bad snap. Other snaps were low, throwing off Howell’s timing.
Javonte Williams’ 19-yard run early in the fourth quarter finally gave UNC some running success, and it was its longest run of the night. After that, the Tar Heels’ running game seemed to get its stride and was a force in the fourth quarter. Williams finished with 78 yards.
Enough big defensive plays in fourth quarter
Clinging to a one-point lead heading into the fourth quarter after Williams hit K.J. Osborn on a 29-yard slant pass, UNC needed some big defensive plays. First, Aaron Crawford sacked Williams on first down, then Tomon Fox recorded his third sack of the night on third down to stymie the Hurricanes drive.
Fox is the first Tar Heel to collect three sacks in a game since Kareem Martin had 3.5 against Pittsburgh Nov. 16, 2013.
Later in the fourth quarter, UNC’s defense couldn’t stop Miami. But after the Hurricanes scored a touchdown to take the lead, they went for two. Jason Strowbridge hurried Williams’ throw and, with Greg Ross closely defending, a 2-point conversion pass fell harmlessly to the ground in the end zone to leave Miami’s lead at five points.
Strowbridge also made a huge play late in the third quarter when he blocked a Miami point-after attempt.
The defense definitely has its bad moments, but made enough big plays in the end.
Punting game hurts the Tar Heels
North Carolina cleaned up a major penalty problem in the opener, but another issue cropped up on Saturday. UNC only had one penalty for five yards after racking up 10 for 90 yards a week earlier.
Punting was a new concern.
Freshman punter Ben Kiernan performed decently a week earlier, with a 41.6-yard average over his five punts. But against Miami, he hit a couple off the side of his foot and consistently gave the Hurricanes good field position with an average of 27.5 over four punts.