By R.L. Bynum
WINSTON-SALEM — North Carolina came to Wake Forest on Friday night full of confidence after two fourth-quarter comeback wins and with a true-freshman quarterback who seemed to be doing nearly everything right.
Over the course of a painful first half for the Tar Heels, that confidence seemed to be shot and Sam Howell suddenly performed with the sort of skittishness that you’d normally expect from a young quarterback.
He recovered to make some big plays in the fourth quarter as UNC regained some confidence. They came up with a little fourth-quarter magic again. There just wasn’t enough for a third consecutive comeback in a 24–18 loss to the Demon Deacons.
“They made one heck of a comeback tonight. Just too short,” UNC coach Mack Brown said.
Wake Forest (3-0) delivered a shot of reality to UNC (2-1) in the first half, then held off a furious Tar Heels rally. The positives for UNC were that they didn’t go down without a fight and the game doesn’t count in the ACC standings.
“He’s tough as nails. He’ll be really critical of himself,” Brown said of Howell. “But I want him to take from it that he had enough about him to hang in there in a really tough environment and then come back and give us a chance to win the quarter. And I think that’s because that’s who he is.”
The second half was about showing what team was made of, facing a 21-point deficit.
“I told the guys at halftime you are who you are,” Brown said. “So, if you go out there and lay down the second half, you’re a team that lays down. If you go out there and fight your guts out, then that’s who you are and that’s what they did. So, I’m really proud. I can go home and we can fix all the things we messed up. We can keep fixing the things we messed up as long as they keep believing and keep trying.”
It took a Miles Dorn interception with 5:42 left in the third quarter to finally jump-start some momentum, with the Tar Heels trailing 21–0. That produced a career-high 49-yard Noah Ruggles field goal.
A 55-yard pass play from Howell to Dyami Brown led to an 11-yard scoring strike to Michael Carter with 9:21 left to make it 21–10.
A 50-yard Carter run ignited Carolina’s next drive that produced another Howell-to-Brown connection. The slant pass on a 17-yard play came with 6:09 left. Howell then hit Garrett Walston on the two-point conversion pass to make it 21–18.
After a 32-yard field goal from Wake Forest’s Nick Sciba made it 24–18 with 1:09 left, UNC got its last chance. But with no timeouts left, UNC squandered much of the last minute and came up short.
The clock ran out during Carter’s 13-yard run, although it looked like there might have been a second remaining as he went out of bounds.
“I looked up at the clock and I just thought it was going to be the last play of the game and that’s kind of what happened,” Carter said. “We just ran out of time. That’s part of the game.”
Howell wasn’t as sharp in the first three quarters as he was in the previous two games, taking sacks many times when he should have thrown the ball away. Wake Forest’s defenders never gave him much time throw or many open receivers until the fourth quarter.
After going 10 of 18 for 62 yards through three quarters, he went 7 of 10 for 120 yards, two touchdowns and a two-point conversion pass in the fourth quarter.
UNC led Power 5 schools nationally by only giving up 10 sacks all of last season. The Tar Heels gave up six against Wake Forest and the offensive line has already allowed 13 this season.
A little experience might just go a long way, and it showed with redshirt junior Wake Forest quarterback Jamie Newman. He beat the Tar Heels with his arm and his legs and consistently made plays when needed to build a 21-point lead. He finished 14 for 26 passing for 214 yards and one touchdown while running for 78 yards.
BOX SCORE (NCAA.COM)
There was a good bit of hype about the brother matchup of Wake Forest wide receiver Sage Surratt and UNC linebacker Chazz Surratt.
Chazz, a junior, did have 8 tackles on the night. But, make no mistake, this was Sage’s night, and it wasn’t even close.
Sage, a redshirt sophomore, had a career-best night with 169 reception yards and a touchdown on 9 receptions after being targeted 12 times. The 6-foot-3 receiver took full advantage of his height advantage against UNC’s shorter defenders.
Kicking up some UNC positives
North Carolina didn’t do a lot of well for much of the game, but kicking provided some positives.
In addition to Ruggles’ long field goal, freshman punter Ben Kiernan rebounded from his struggles against Miami.
After only being asked to punt nine times in the first two games, he punted 10 times Friday and gave the Tar Heels the badly needed field-position flips they repeatedly needed. He averaged 46.0 on the night. He had three kicks of more than 50 yards, including a 57-yard boot.
UNC can’t shake injury issues
Last season, the injuries kept piling up to crazy levels to test North Carolina’s depth and forced young players to play sooner than they were ready.
With a new strength-and-conditioning program, the Tar Heels hoped that would change this season. So far, it’s still an issue.
Last week, they lost defensive back Patrice Rene for the season to an ACL injury and lost center Nick Polino indefinitely with a lower-body injury.
More bad news came before the game with lower-body injuries sidelining wide receiver Antoine Green, tight end Carl Tucker and defensive tackle Jason Strowbridge.
Strowbridge’s absence on defense and Polino’s absence on offense made the evening tough for Carolina.
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