By R.L. Bynum
ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Is it too early to start the Sam Howell for Heisman 2020 campaign?
If the North Carolina quarterback wasn’t already in the conversation, he ran and passed — and caught — his way into it in Friday’s 55–13 Military Bowl victory over Temple.
Howell (whose previous best rushing game was 24 against Appalachian State) ran for 80 yards and passed for 294 more and three touchdowns with no interceptions to finish his freshman season with 38 touchdown passes.
Howell did it in 13 games. The only other ACC quarterbacks to throw for more were Deshaun Watson (41 in 15 games in 2016 to lead Clemson to the national championship) and Jameis Winston (40 in 14 games in 2013 for Florida State’s consensus national champions).
Firstly, I will say I have some really good players around me,” Howell said. “They did a really good job all year long keeping me protected. How about those receivers? There are some really, really good receivers around me, so they make my job easy. And we put in a lot of work in the offseason.”
Howell, the game MVP, even had as many touchdown catches as Temple because he caught a 2-yard touchdown pass from Toe Groves in the third quarter.
Howell will have an experienced offense back with him next season, losing only offensive lineman Charlie Heck.
UNC coach Mack Brown said that the seniors all told him at the end of the summer that Howell was the best quarterback. He asked because he isn’t allowed to watch those workouts.
“Sam’s a gym rat,” Brown said. “He’s in our office all the time. And for young people out there that want to be good and want to break records, you’ve got to do that. You’ve got to be passionate about it. You can’t just like it. And he’s passionate about being really, really good at football. And he studies it and he knows it and he’s learned it. I knew that we had something special when I got back in August.”
Howell was in step all day with Dazz Newsome, who missed one touchdown reception when he couldn’t get a foot down at the edge of the end zone but made the play near the line two other times. Newsome finished with 71 yards and two touchdowns.
“We felt good coming in,” Howell said. “We thought we had a really good plan. We had a really good week of practice and a lot of good practices before we came here. So, it’s just a matter of going on the field and trusting our preparation.”
After the first 10 games were full of last-second suspense, the Tar Heels finished the season with three blowout victories and their first bowl win since beating Cincinnati 45–21 in Charlotte in 2013. UNC put up a Military Bowl-record point total and the most points in a bowl game in school history.
UNC (7-6) is one of only eight Power 5 teams that didn’t lose a game by more than a touchdown all season.
“I actually thought we would win more games and we had so many close games that we didn’t win,” Mack Brown said. “And that was so frustrating because I pride myself on helping them win those games when they’re close. But actually, when you go back and look at the season from the back end, you want to get much better at the end of the year than you were the beginning.”
Howell gave UNC the early lead when Dyami Brown made a leaping grab in the end zone on a 39-yard pass to give the Tar Heels a 7-0 lead with 6:24 left in the first quarter. Brown started tracking the pass against single coverage at about the 5 and back-tracked to make the catch.
Howell led Newsome too much on a pass to the right side of the end zone. Newsome made a great catch but couldn’t get a toe in before going out of bounds. UNC had to settle for a 26-yard Noah Ruggles field goal to put UNC up 10-0 with 10:17 left in the first half.
A 60-yard pass from Temple quarterback Anthony Russo to wide receiver Jadan Blue set up the Owls’ first score, a Re’Mahn Davis 4-yard touchdown run with 7:59 left in the first half. Jason Strowbridge blocked the point-after attempt. The fourth blocked kick of his career left UNC’s lead at 10-6.
Newsome got his right foot down on a throw to the left side of the end zone later in the first quarter after making a juggling catch to shove the Heels’ lead to 17-6 with 4:14 left.
Ruggles had a field-goal attempt blocked and returned for a touchdown in the closing seconds of the first half. He got another chance from 36 yards out after a Temple offside penalty nullified that play. He hit it this time to give UNC a 20-6 halftime lead.
UNC padded its lead with an Antonio Williams 1-yard touchdown plunge with 11:24 left in the third quarter. Storm Duck’s 29-yard interception return for a touchdown 12 seconds later made it 34-6.
Howell’s catch made it 41-6. He pitched it to Javonte Williams, who handed it to Groves to set up the throw.
A UNC fumble set up Temple’s 45-yard touchdown pass from Todd Centeio to Davis, but Newsome got those points back with a 29-yard scoring reception early in the fourth quarter. Antonio Williams added UNC’s final touchdown with 7:43 left.
BOX SCORE (NCAA.COM)
The quest for 1,000
Two UNC running backs came into the game with shots at 1,000 rushing yards for the season and two receivers were near 1,000 receiving yards. Three of those four reached that number.
Brown and Newsome both entered the game with 947 receiving yards.
With a 22-yard pass play early in the second half, Brown caught that milestone. He finished the game with 87 yards on five catches and the season with 1,033 yards on 51 catches. Newsome ended the day with 71 receiving yards (with two touchdowns) and 1,018 for the season.
No Tar Heel had run for 1,000 yards since Elijah Hood collected 1,463 in 2015. Both Michael Carter and Javonte Williams came into the game with good chances to reach that number. Carolina hasn’t had two 1,000-yard rushers since Curtis Johnson (1,034) and Leon Johnson (1,012) did it in 1993 and that will stand after this season.
A four-yard run in the last three minutes of the game gave Carter 84 yards on the day and 1,003 yards for the season. Williams needed more to get 1,000, ending up with 85 yards Friday and 933 for the season.
Solid defensive day for Tar Heels
North Carolina’s defense came up with the big plays when they were needed, and despite some pass interference calls — some questionable — only gave up two big plays all day.
Other than that, 60-yard pass play and the 45-yard touchdown pass, the Tar Heels were solid. Just when it appeared that Temple would do some damage on the game’s opening drive, Duck stalled it with a huge sack.
When Duck returned an interception for a touchdown, it was officially a blowout.
Shortly afterward, UNC stopped Temple on a fourth-and-two attempt on a tackle by Don Chapman and Jeremiah Gemmel.
Tomon Fox snagged a tipped pass for a fourth-quarter interception.
UNC receivers good despite one last drop
Even the most talented quarterbacks can’t overcome drops, and they have plagued the Tar Heels’ receiving corps all season.
It didn’t take long for that issue to pop up in Annapolis.
On UNC’s first drive, a long pass to Groves went in and out of his hands. A catch would have put the Tar Heels at the Temple 20. The 32nd drop of the season forced UNC to settle for a 50-yard Ruggles field-goal attempt that went wide left.
The good news on the day for UNC is that it was the only blatant drop all day.
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