In only one year on the job, Mack Brown has the North Carolina Tar Heels in a position to become bowl eligible next week against NC State. Let’s not make light of that statement. There are plenty of situations where bowl games feel like a form of punishment (see the 2016 Sun Bowl following UNC’s tough loss to Clemson).
But after the last two years of Carolina football, this season feels like the end of a tough couple of years. Sure, there’s not a whole lot to take away from a 56-7 victory against an FCS program, except for the fact that it wasn’t a loss. But the performance from this Tar Heel team could have very easily been lackadaisical coming off a disappointing overtime loss to Pittsburgh, and a big game against NC State coming up next. But with that looming, the Tar Heels showed up and showed out.
While North Carolina has a lot to look forward to, they did play an excellent game against Mercer. Sam Howell is great, and only going to get better. That has to be a scary thought for all the ACC Coastal teams. The true freshman was 10-of-13 for 152 yards on Saturday, adding three touchdowns to his total on the year, which brought him to 32 total. That number is significant because he passed Mitchell Trubisky for most in a single season in North Carolina history. I have a strange feeling that it won’t be the only record Howell will break in his Tar Heel career.
As good as Howell was though, he was not the star of the day. Michael Carter might still be scoring touchdowns to this very minute you are reading this. Carter had three rushing touchdowns on the day, with his longest being a sixty yard run where he turned on the jets, just as we have become accustomed to. The Tar Heels 42 of their 56 points in the first half, as Vincent Amendola came on to play quarterback in the second half. There was a healthy dosage of running from the offense in the second half, which helped the Tar Heels surpass 375 yards on the ground alone.
The defense did give up a late touchdown to Mercer, but the entire game they were much more physical and more consistent than they have been in recent games. They gave up the fewest points of any game this season, which is still a great feat, even against an FCS opponent in nasty weather conditions. If this energized version of the North Carolina defense shows up next week at NC State, the Tar Heels will have a great opportunity at going bowling.
Now, with all that being said about how it finally feels like this program is making the turn, next week’s game against State is huge for momentum. Should North Carolina win, they will go bowling, they will have beaten Duke and NC State in the same season for the first time since 2015, and with that comes substantial in-state recruiting momentum. A loss in that game would be a huge setback to all the steps the Heels have made in the last year.
There’s only one sentiment for next week: Beat the Wolfpack.