North Carolina’s whiplash season continued Saturday afternoon when Wake Forest came to town. In true 2020 fashion, a week after defensively dominating the Duke Blue Devils, UNC’s defense went missing-in-action for much of the afternoon. The offense, now a finely tuned machine, once again kept the Heels within striking distance.
Oh. And Sam Howell broke a few UNC records.
The result? A dizzying 59-53 victory for North Carolina.
The fireworks began in the first quarter. After UNC stalled on their opening drive, the teams combined for 31 points, with the Heels holding a 17-14 lead. Sam Howell did his part with 232 passing yards and two touchdowns. Dazz Newsome was on the receiving end of a 75-yard catch and run, while partner in crime Dyami Brown snagged a 23-yard touchdown. One drive was snuffed out inside the 10, resulting in a Grayson Adkins field goal.
However, as the game continued, the defense once again struggled to find answers. The second quarter was more of the same, as the Demon Deacons outscored UNC 21-7, entering halftime with a 35-24 lead. A mix of UNC’s middle-game offensive hiccups didn’t provide any relief to a defense that was gashed by explosive plays.
In the first half alone, Wake Forest found success with five plays of 25+ yards. Those included a 40-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter, and 28-yard and 41-yard pass plays in 3rd and long situations in the second quarter. Of particular note was Wake’s ability to find mismatches in coverage that exploited UNC linebackers Jeremiah Gemmell and Tyone Hopper in pass coverage deep down the field.
At the half, Sam Howell was 20-26 for 323 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 1 interception (thanks to Dyami Brown not wrestling a 50/50 ball away from the defender), despite a pinpoint pass from Howell. That helped buoy the vaunted UNC rushing attack which could only muster 65 yards in the first 30 minutes.
Unfortunately, the other Sam, Wake’s Sam Hartman, was just as impressive. He was 14-19, for 244 yards and 2 touchdowns. Running back Kenneth Walker III added 2 more touchdowns, while Christian Beal-Smith provided the bulk of Wake’s 150 rushing yards.
The second half began, and it looked like a repeat of the Virginia debacle. Wake scored 10 more points on their first two drives to push the deficit to 45-24. UNC, meanwhile, punted on their opening second half possession. It was the fourth straight drive that did not result in points. A blow-out seemed imminent.
But, just as in Tallahassee and Charlottesville, the Tar Heels showed some life when the game seemed to be out of reach. Over the next four drives, Sam Howell threw his fourth, fifth, and sixth touchdowns on the day. Dyami Brown caught his second score on an 4-yard fade in the red zone, Michael Carter exploded for a 46-yard catch and run down the sideline, and Garrett Walston hauled in a 10-yard floater.
Those efforts tied the game 45-45, as the Heels responded to Wake Forests previous 24-0 scoring run with 21 straight points of their own. Those efforts were aided by a resurgent defense that forced Wake Forest to four straight punts, never allowing them to cross mid-field. A few key personnel adjustments seemed to drive those efforts, including an increased presence from freshmen Tony Grimes (CB), Ja’Qurious Conley (S), Myles Murphy (DT) and Kaimon Rucker (DE).
That set the stage for the final 7:30 of game time, when UNC got the ball back at their 19-yard line with the score tied.
Howell, Carter, and Williams promptly answered the call. Carter started the momentum with a 26-yard carry. Three plays later, Howell scrambled for a first down after the pocket collapsed on 3rd and 7. Williams followed that up with a 21-yard burst to the Wake Forest 20. Two plays later, Howell once again carried the ball, this time weaving around and through the Deacon defense for a 20-yard touchdown run.
That gave UNC a 52-45 lead. The defense needed one more stop. They delivered.
On Wake Forest’s next possession, UNC forced a turnover on downs on four straight plays. Chazz Surratt ended the drive with a sack. That gave the Heels the ball back inside the red zone.
North Carolina took the opportunity to score their 35th unanswered point. Javonte Williams finally got in on the action, scoring his 14th rushing touchdown of the season (and his 18th overall), with a 15-yard run. That gave the Heels a 60-45 lead with just 2:39 remaining.
Wake Forest finally responded with a touchdown and two-point conversion to cut the lead to 59-53. Javonte William recovered their ensuing onside kick. Wake did not have any timeouts remaining, effectively ending the game.
Howell finished with 550 yards, six touchdowns, and one interception. He added a seventh touchdown on the ground. Those are all UNC single game records.
Javonte Williams again eclipsed the 100-yard mark, finishing with 101 yards on 13 carries and one touchdown.
Michael Carter gained 77 rushing yards, hauled in 55 receiving yards and 1 receiving touchdown.
Dazz Newsome finally exploded after a frustrating first half of the season, finishing with 10 receptions, 189 yards, and two touchdowns.
Dyami Brown almost kept pace with 8 receptions, 163 yards, and two touchdowns. Brown now has 21 receiving touchdowns in his UNC career.
Chazz Surratt led the defense with 14 tackles and one sack.
Of note, North Carolina now has a 5-game winning streak over in-state rivals, dating back to last season.
In a non-COVID year, North Carolina would officially become bowl eligible with the win, improving their record to 6-2.