The Tar Heels are finding confidence. The majority of college football observers didn’t give North Carolina much of a chance Saturday against a veteran South Carolina squad. While possible, it wasn’t likely that the young Tar Heels would end North Carolina’s recent futility in the Border War. However, Mack Brown’s Tar Heels simply refused to lose. After falling behind 20-9, North Carolina stormed back in the fourth quarter, leaving Charlotte with a 24-20 win. All signs point to improvement from last year and newfound confidence.
The Tar Heels lost close games time and again during the last two seasons, but two Myles Wolfolk interceptions and a pair of Sam Howell touchdown passes made the difference as North Carolina took control in the fourth quarter. The impact of the win was immediate. Looking ahead, it’s reasonable to wonder if Brown’s rebuilding task is already ahead of schedule.
An Impressive Debut for Howell
Coming into the season opener, all eyes were on Howell, North Carolina’s true freshman quarterback. Just a few months ago, Howell was a high school senior and had committed to play for Willie Taggert at Florida State. Flash forward to the present, and now Howell is the starting quarterback for Brown at North Carolina. After a three-way battle during the spring and late summer, Howell emerged from training camp with the job.
On Saturday, the Monroe, North Carolina native cemented himself as the unquestioned on-field leader of the Tar Heels. He thoroughly outplayed his Gamecocks counterpart, senior Jake Bentley. Howell played smart, tough football, passing for two touchdowns and no interceptions. While he did give up a fumble, Howell wasn’t afraid of contact when he decided to use his legs. From the second quarter onward, Howell fought cramps between series, but he showed his resilience each time he came back onto the field.
Offensive coordinator Phil Longo was conservative with Howell during the first half. Twice, the Tar Heels ran the ball on third down in the red zone, needing more than five yards. After the break, Longo took the reins off Howell, and the freshman responded with his first two collegiate touchdown passes. For the day, Howell finished 15-24 for 245 yards. If he had any opening-game jitters, it didn’t show. He gave the impression of a quarterback in control, and one game into the season, he already looks like a seasoned veteran.
Success Starts with the Running Backs
Over the past several weeks, we’ve discussed the importance and potential of North Carolina’s ground game. The Tar Heels were successful Saturday in establishing the run against a good South Carolina defensive front. Longo alternated Michael Carter and Javonte Williams for most of the day, and both backs were productive against the Gamecocks. Carter looked as fast as ever, and Williams at times overpowered would-be tacklers. The tone was set by the running back duo’s effectiveness, resulting in open passing lanes for Howell as the game wore on. South Carolina’s defensive unit seemed to be dragging by the end of the game, with Williams picking up yardage in chunks. Carter finished the day with 77 yards on 16 carries, while Williams gained 102 yards on 18 carries. Senior Antonio Williams played sparingly, but picked up 53 yards on four carries, averaging a punishing 13.3 yards per carry.
This running back unit is reminiscent of the Johnson and Johnson combo of Brown’s first tenure in Chapel Hill. Curtis Johnson and Leon Johnson were arguably the best running back tandem in college football during the mid-nineties, racking up yardage and keeping opposing offenses off the field. That translated into wins then; the current group of running backs showed Saturday that they can get it done now.
Tar Heels’ Defense Didn’t Break
The Gamecocks entered the game with an offensive unit full of veterans and playmakers. Bentley is a four-year starter at quarterback, and he has no shortage of weapons around him. North Carolina’s defensive woes have been well-documented over the past few years, so it didn’t seem likely that South Carolina would have any trouble scoring. How would the Tar Heels contain Bentley, running backs Rico Dowdle and Tavien Feaster, and standout receiver Bryan Edwards?
On the Gamecocks opening drive, it seemed Bentley and company would have their way with the Tar Heels’ defense, driving down the field behind Dowdle’s running before settling for a field goal. In the second quarter, Feaster made linebacker Chazz Surratt miss badly before darting to the end zone. The Tar Heels failed to tackle well in the first half. South Carolina’s backs repeatedly bounced off of attempted tackles for extra yards. However, Bentley couldn’t get much going with the passing game, and the Gamecocks bogged down in the red zone several times.
By the third quarter, the Tar Heels were wrapping up runners and finishing tackles, but Bentley found a wide-open Kyle Markway for a 22-yard scoring strike. The Gamecocks’ lead was 20-9, and this would have broken previous North Carolina squads. However, the Tar Heels didn’t break, and the Gamecocks would not score again.
The Secondary Saves the Day
Howell connected for two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter. The first score, a 22-yard pass to Dyami Brown, was followed by a Howell keeper for a two-point conversion. Six minutes later, Howell found Beau Corrales for the go-ahead touchdown, and the Tar Heels took a 24-20 lead.
The Gamecocks had plenty of time, and multiple opportunities to regain the lead. Bentley naturally looked for Edwards, his star receiver, but couldn’t connect as the Tar Heels’ secondary had him covered well. Safety Myles Wolfolk intercepted two Bentley passes in the final minutes, and was awarded North Carolina’s new “Turnover Belt” both times.
This was an exceptional effort from the Tar Heels’ secondary against a solid passing offense. The touchdown pass from Bentley to Markway was the only blemish on the day. For the day, Bentley had a mediocre stat line, as North Carolina held him to 147 passing yards on 16 completions.
What it Means Moving Forward
The Tar Heels face a tough September schedule, and can’t celebrate this win very long. The Miami Hurricanes now come to Chapel Hill for a Saturday night meeting, and North Carolina will encounter an even stiffer defensive front than the one they encountered against South Carolina. The difference now is that these Tar Heels believe they can win, in what will most likely be another close game.
Once again, North Carolina must rely on the strength of its running backs. Williams may receive an even larger workload Saturday night, and if he manages another 100-yard game, Miami is in trouble. The Hurricanes played a close game with Florida last week, and had chances to win, but didn’t appear to be a quick-strike type of team in the debut freshman quarterback Jarren Williams. If the Tar Heels ground game controls the time of possession and opens up the passing attack for Howell, North Carolina will have a very real chance to begin the season 2-0.
Not so long ago, many were second-guessing the hiring of Brown. At 67 years old, and having not coached in six years, the decision was a head-scratcher for many observers. He wasn’t the “cool hire,” that a young up-and-comer like Scott Satterfield would have been. Now, the second-guessers are second-guessing themselves. When Brown took the job, he stated that he wanted to win right away. So far, he has done that, both on the recruiting trail and now on the playing field. Most importantly, his players have made believers out of themselves.