North Carolina entered the last two weeks needing back to back wins to become bowl eligible. The team has done just that, and in impressive fashion. Led by freshman quarterback Sam Howell, North Carolina has scored 97 points over the last two games, including a second half explosion Saturday at NC State. Now, a bowl invitation awaits, and the Tar Heels are surging at the right time.
The Air Raid Machine Is Humming
Phil Longo‘s air raid offensive system has shown the potential to put up great numbers all season. Howell’s stats rival those of quarterbacks who have been considered Heisman trophy candidates. The freshman has played like a seasoned veteran, passing for 35 touchdowns against only seven interceptions. The running backs have played well, and the receivers have developed into one of the better units in the ACC.
Two weeks ago, North Carolina’s offense displayed its optimum firepower against the Mercer Bears. Mercer is an FCS program, and the match-up was considered a “cupcake game.” However, it was exactly what the doctor ordered for the Tar Heels’ confidence level.
This past Saturday, the Tar Heels faced off against NC State on the road. The Wolfpack presented a much different obstacle than Mercer. NC State is North Carolina’s archenemy in football, and the Wolfpack would have loved nothing more than to spoil the Tar Heels’ bowl aspirations.
North Carolina’s offense sputtered in the first half on a cold, rainy night in Raleigh, mustering only six points on two Noah Ruggles field goals. NC State got the ball first in the third quarter, and the Tar Heels forced a punt. Then, the dam broke.
A Blistering Display Of Offense
The Tar Heels responded with a blistering display of offense in the second half. Running back Javonte Williams burst through the Wolfpack’s defense for a 26-yard touchdown. On the next series, Williams caught an 11-yard pass from Howell to score again. Three minutes later, the Tar Heels struck again as Williams barreled into the end zone from six yards out. Not yet finished, Howell hit Dyami Brown with 52-yard bomb for another score with 20 seconds left in the quarter. North Carolina lead by the score of 34-10, and for all practical purposes, the fight had been taken out of NC State.
Howell found Dazz Newsome for another touchdown pass in the fourth quarter, extending the lead to 41-10. Mack Brown removed his starters afterwards, as the game had been decided. Howell finished the night with 401 passing yards and three touchdowns. Tar Heel fans got a glimpse of the future as highly-touted true freshman Josh Henderson rushed for 29 yards on five carries during the final minutes. Henderson ran for nearly 100 yards against Mercer the previous week.
Tar Heels’ Defense Responded
North Carolina’s offense looked solid all season; the question was whether Jay Bateman‘s defensive unit would step up during the Tar Heels’ late-season push for a bowl game. We now know the answer, as North Carolina surrendered only 17 points during the last two games. The defense pitched a second half shutout against NC State after giving up ten points in the first half. The Tar Heels intercepted three passes and forced a fumble, giving the offense plenty of opportunities and great field position.
Chazz Surratt has developed into one of the best linebackers in the ACC, after converting from quarterback. The Tar Heels are getting outstanding play from linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel as well. Gemmel recovered the fumble against NC State, setting up one of the third quarter touchdowns. Wolfpack running back Zonovan Knight found room at times in the first half, but the Tar Heels shut him down after the break.
North Carolina’s secondary is young, as multiple defensive backs have been injured this season. NC State scored on a wide-open touchdown pass late in the second quarter, but would not threaten again. The Tar Heels picked off three Wolfpack passes during the second half. With the season on the line, North Carolina’s defense has answered the call.
Tar Heels Are Surging At The Right Time
North Carolina finished the regular season with a record of six wins and six losses, and will now wait to find out which bowl game they’ll be playing in. The Tar Heels are surging at the right time, building confidence and motivation as the postseason draws near.
There are several interesting bowl possibilities for North Carolina. One is the Belk Bowl, in Charlotte. Others include the Military Bowl, in Annapolis, where the Tar Heels could face the hometown Midshipmen of Navy. The Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium is another possibility.
One possible scenario is a match-up between North Carolina and Texas at the Camping World Bowl in Orlando. This offers an intriguing storyline, as Brown would meet up against the program he previously led to a national championship. Camping World CEO Marcus Lemonis has tweeted his support for a Longhorns-Tar Heels battle, as it would certainly be an attendance and ratings draw. We’ll have to wait a few more days to see if that possibility becomes reality.
No matter who North Carolina plays next, the team is trending upward. The Tar Heels are playing well on both sides of the ball, and may have saved their best for the end of the season. One year ago, after a two-win season, bowl games were not part of the conversation at North Carolina. This is the culmination of a remarkable turnaround that’s only getting better. If the Tar Heels bring a bowl trophy back to Chapel Hill-this soon-it sends a message to recruits and observers that this football program means business.