On the opening drive, North Carolina’s running backs couldn’t stay on their feet or hold onto the football. It was a harbinger of what was to come. Sloppy weather conditions, improper footwear, and continued red zone struggles plagued the Heels throughout the first half.
Then, UNC did what they’ve done all season. A strong second half erased a sub-par first half performance, and the Heels left Raleigh with their sixth win. Along the way, it became apparent that this team cannot do anything the easy way.
State drew first blood on their first possession of the game, but had to settle for a field goal after reaching the red zone. For all that has been made about UNC’s red zone woes, NC State has been worse, ranking 111th in touchdown percentage in the red zone. Carolina, though, did their part proving their own red zone ineptitude (96th in the nation).
The Heels finally showed signs of life in the second quarter, taking consecutive drives inside State’s 10-yard line. A false start forced them in into a field goal on the first trip. Back-to-back timeouts were followed by Howell getting sacked, forcing a second Noah Ruggles field goal. That gave UNC a slim 6-3 lead, but momentum seemed to be mounting in Carolina’s favor.
Those good vibes disappeared on their next possession, as Howell threw an off-balance prayer on first down. NC State linebacker Payton Wilson intercepted the ill-advised throw and returned it to midfield. State then capitalized on the ensuing drive with a 39-yard touchdown throw from Devin Leary to wide receiver Tobari Hines. State took that 10-6 lead into halftime.
Despite passing completions of 45, 24, 33 and 57 yards, the Heels only had 6 points. The inability to establish a successful ground game was the main contributing factor. Michael Carter, Javonte Williams, and Antonio Williams entered the intermissions with a combined 11 carries for 20 yards.
That trend did not continue. Instead, the UNC defense and Javonte Williams happened.
After the teams exchanged punts to open the second half, UNC freshman safety Don Chapman intercepted his second pass of the season on a diving play near midfield. Two plays later, UNC found the end zone on a 26-yard Javonte Williams rumble up the middle. They took a 13-10 lead, and the rout was on.
Another NC State punt gave UNC the ball on their own 29 yard line. The Heels promptly marched 71 yards for another Javonte Williams touchdown. The rushing problems of the first half also disappeared with Carter and Williams gaining 32 yards on the ground. Williams finished the drive with back-to-back receptions. A 10-yard TD reception gave UNC their first red zone touchdown of the game and a 20-10 lead.
Just 17 seconds into State’s next drive, sophomore Jeremiah Gemmell forced a Zonovan Knight fumble in the backfield and UNC recovered. Six plays and another Javonte Williams touchdown run quickly followed. A second consecutive red zone touchdown gave UNC a 27-10 lead. The three consecutive drives totaled just 8:40 of game action, but UNC held possession for 6:55 of that time.
There was still 2:02 left in the third quarter. UNC used it wisely.
Another UNC interception, this time by sophomore CB Trey Morrison, gave the ball back to Sam Howell’s offense at the UNC 42. After setting up the previous three scores with the run game, Howell didn’t waste any time. A quick pass to Dyami Brown was just an appetizer to the next play.
As has become custom this season, Howell hit a streaking Brown for a 52-yard touchdown down the sideline. The 10-6 halftime deficit a distant memory, three turnovers and four straight touchdown drives gave the Heels a commanding 34-10 lead into the 4th quarter.
Spoiler Alert: UNC wasn’t finished.
NC State opened the fourth quarter by continuing their struggles from the third quarter. This time they did reach the red zone thanks to back-up QB Bailey Hockman entering for an injured Leary, but State promptly turned the ball over on downs after failing to get into the end zone. UNC took over inside their own 10, but at this point UNC could have started a drive in the parking lot and still found their way into the end zone.
A combination of Michael Carter runs and Beau Corrales receptions eventually got the Heels down to NC State’s 13 yard line. A quick fake to Javonte Williams on swing route shifted the defense, and Howell fired his 35th touchdown pass of the season to Dazz Newsome in the back of the end zone. The 41-10 lead ended the fireworks for the night.
Myles Dorn corralled his second interception of the season on the next drive, ending the Wolfpack’s last scoring chance. The Heels replaced all their starters on the final drive, and controlled the ball for the final 6:05 of the game.
Sam Howell finished with 401 yards and 3 touchdowns on 23-33 passing. He now has 35 touchdown passes on the year, extending his UNC single-season record.
Michael Carter finished with 16 carries and 97 yards. Javonte Williams was right behind him with 9 carries, 58 yards, and 2 touchdowns. He also had 3 receptions for 42 yards and another TD.
Dazz Newsome returned to action, after being suspended last week for a violation of team rules, with 7 receptions for 130 yards and a touchdown. Dyami Brown had 6 catches for 150 yards and a team leading 11th touchdown.
The final score was the largest UNC margin of victory in the series since 1996 when they won 52-20.
North Carolina finishes the season with a 6-6 record and now await their bowl fate.