I’m not saying UNC’s victory yesterday over Georgia Tech ever felt in serious jeopardy, because it was evident from about the opening snap that the Heels were just going to be physically too much for the Yellow Jackets, an advantage that bore itself out as the game went on. But it did start pretty inauspiciously for quarterback Sam Howell, as he had a couple of gorgeous deep balls dropped that would have buried the Jackets early. The young quarterback also threw what was easily the worst interception of his young career, a ball into double coverage to a receiver who was never open. In the early going, Howell was 5/12 for 65 yards and a pick, substantially subpar numbers for any quarterback and outright putrid for the standard he had so far established. Like Mack Brown said after the game, though, you wouldn’t know any of that from watching him. Howell has shown a unique ability already to treat every play the same, regardless of the pressure surrounding him, and from that point on, went on to have an absolute banner day despite his receivers’ drop issues never really going away. He finished the game with easily his highest totals to date in passing attempts, completions, yardage, and touchdowns, with a final line of 33/51/376/4 and the aforementioned interception, controlling the entire flow of the game on his way to being our undisputed player of the game. For those less gifted with numbers, 33/51 is 64.7% completion, which is a pretty solid number, but if you just take his numbers after the 5/12 start, you get 28/39/311/4/0, which is absolutely stellar and speaks to his ability to bounce back.
Howell’s day put him in the record books for the most completions, passing yards, and passing touchdowns by a UNC freshman, with that last one being a tie with Darian Durant. He also, according to Pat James of GoHeels.com, technically set the UNC freshman record for total offense when you add in his single rushing yard, which was probably a given if we’re counting passing yards as “total offense.” Furthermore, he is the first UNC quarterback, regardless of class, with 350+ yards and 4+ passing touchdowns since Mitch Trubisky, which again makes sense. In the bigger scheme of things, 371 yards ranks 12th since 2000 (as far as sports-reference.com/cfb‘s archive goes), which means probably all-time, for UNC quarterbacks. Four touchdowns puts him in a long list tied for second, and 33 completions ranks fourth. Totally unleashed for probably the first time of what’s sure to be many to come, Sam Howell put on a show to be remembered, slicing up the Georgia Tech secondary over and over again and, a week after his shakiest performance to date, giving us his absolute best (after the bad start). His numbers would have looked even better without the several inexplicable drops that his receivers suffered, and they were already great. He’s only a freshman, and as he grows and his supporting cast with him (please, no more drops), his career is looking like it could be something Tar Heel fans have scarcely seen before.
A couple of other Heels deserve shouts for their performances in Atlanta, too. Tomon Fox was the standout on defense in the first half while the offense waited to get going, having a great homecoming with a sack, another tackle for loss, a QB hurry, and 5 total tackles. Just about every receiver had his turn coming up big in the clutch, but Dazz Newsome paced the group with 8 receptions for 81 yards and a score. Javonte Williams continued to show out this season with 20 carries for 144 yards and a score, and Chazz Surratt continued his surge with several good hits en route to 12 total tackles. The team wasn’t always in sync, but this was a team win. And the leader and face of this team, after just 6 games of playing for it, is the quarterback phenom, Sam Howell. This win, just like his two prior and what’s sure to be several to come, belongs to him.