It felt like a script that kept repeating itself over the last two years: the Tar Heels offense can put up points but the defense can’t do enough to take advantage. The hole is too deep to climb back out of. The Heels make it close but miss some sort of play at the end or just simply run out of time.
Except on Saturday, the script changed.
Early in the second half, Wake Forest had a 21 point lead at 45-24, and everyone knew this offense could put up points, it just seemed like the defense couldn’t make enough stops to give the offense to close the gap. Something snapped after that 45th point, however, and the offense would score 35 consecutive points to flip the tables and lead 59-45, eventually holding on to win by the first-ever, as far as we can tell, 59-53 score.
The win was historic for so many reasons, but here’s the biggest thing to keep in mind: this squad is made up of players from the last two abhorrent Fedora seasons and Mack’s first two seasons. It’s a combination of players filled to the brim with frustration and losses. For the first time, they were able to get themselves out of a significant hole, the defense helped the offense, the offense helped the defense, the special teams played (mostly) mistake free football, and the team was able to come back and beat a team that is one of the best-coached in the conference. Don’t sleep on this win, because what Clawson has done over at Wake Forest is nothing short of remarkable, and it’s surprising he hasn’t been linked to bigger jobs at this point.
If UNC becomes the program fans think they can be, this win may be remembered along side Brown’s 1993 Peach Bowl win as the fork-in-the-road moment.
Let’s get to the list.
Sam Howell: I mean, what else can you say? He was 20-26, 323 yards and three touchdowns...after one half. He went on to obliterate Marquise Williams’ single game passing mark by finishing with 550 yards in the air, slinging it 45 times and completing 32. He was responsible for seven, yes seven, touchdowns-six in the air and one on the ground. He had a single interception that was only one on a technicality, and essentially served as an arm punt, anyway. He may have had fewer yards in the second half, but Carolina doesn’t score those 35 consecutive points unless Howell decides to take the team on his back and will it to win. It was his best game of the season by far, and arguably the best of his career in Carolina Blue. He only took two sacks, and on multiple occasions looked as if he had taken the lessons of when to throw the ball away and survive to the next down. As if that wasn’t enough, on the drive where Carolina took the lead, Howell cemented his legend with two huge plays:
Maybe the Tar Heels go for it on fourth down if he doesn’t make it, but the decision to just move the chains by eluding the pressure and another tackle while doing it was something we aren’t used to.
As if that wasn’t enough, Sam decided to get into the books as one of only three quarterbacks to have 6 passing TD’s and 1 rushing TD since 2000. For the second time on the drive he had an insane 3rd down run:
Unlike the other run that was clearly Sam deciding at that moment he had to run, this was a designed play. Having backup quarterbacks actually healthy and available has allowed the playbook to be opened up, and this is yet another wrinkle that defense coordinators now have to worry about. You can bottle up their receivers, you can stack the box to stop their runners, and Sam can then take you down with a run.
Howell showed he’s going to be a player that fans always remember, and in case you were wondering how the guy he replaced in the record book felt about this performance:
I know Choo Choo a legend but @Sam7Howell need his statue next to his!!— Marquise Williams (@1MjWilliams2) November 14, 2020
The performance netted Howell the Walter Camp FBS Offensive Player of the Week, and it’s likely by the time you read this he’ll have a lot of other accolades to hang on his wall. It’s a good thing the Heels have a bye week so he can ice that arm down and get ready for the Irish. I could keep going, but let’s move on and spotlight some others.
Dazz Newsome: Dazz has not had the type of season that he was hoping for, as the sheer talent on the offensive side of the ball had kept him from putting up the numbers most people were expecting, as he entered Saturday with only 366 yards catching. That all changed this week with an incredible 10 receptions, 189 yards, and two of Howell’s six passing touchdowns. One of those scores was on a beautiful 75 yard play. Newsome was all over the field on Saturday, and reminded everyone that he’s still a force to contend with. It was good to see considering many felt he was going to be the top target this season, and this could be the beginning of a huge run to end the season for the senior.
Dyami Brown: The second receiver to top 100 yards on the day for Carolina, Dyami also caught two scores as part of his 163 yard effort, and he added to his incredible reel of highlight catches with this insane job of ripping away an interception to come down with the ball.
Defense-first 40 minutes: 502 yards allowed, six touchdowns, one field goal, and next to no resistance against the Wake Forest offense. Not all of this is the fault of the D, mind you. Wake’s mesh offense is difficult to defend against when it’s run well, because you have to get pressure into the backfield in order to disrupt it, and Wake blocked well during the first 40 minutes to give WFU quarterback Sam Hartman plenty of time to make decisions. Anytime an offense has the numbers that Carolina’s did-see the Sam Howell note above and that resulted in 24 points-it should be enough if the defense is mildly competent. However, This squad gave up 35 on its way to giving up 45 over that first 60% of the game. They looked slow and worn out. However, something changed once the Tar Heels were able to slip back to 14. The next five drives for the Deacs netted them a total of 29 yards, the most they could manage were five plays on a drive, and once it started going downhill it snowballed for them. Breakdowns will come later in the week showing how DC Jay Bateman adjusted the personnel and finally played some of the kids, and it was good to see the turnaround in the second half be reward with a win, unlike the UVa, FSU, and even the WFU games from last year.
First Half Luck: Literally every break went the way of Wake Forest in the first half. A great play for UNC was wiped out by a holding call on Javonte Williams that wasn’t holding, but drew a flag because someone of Javonte’s size “shouldn’t” be able to take down a lineman; a fumble at the goal line and great play by the UNC defense was a small fumble forward into the end zone recovered by Hartman for another score; and while Brown was the recipient of a great catch, he was also the victim of having an interception ripped out of his hands. All are plays that really handcuffed the Heels even further and may have been enough to completely sink the team. Fortunately, for lack of a better word, the scales evened out in the second half and the better talent of the Tar Heels won out.
UNC Return Teams: Special teams had an average game, which is much better than usual and is what was needed to complete the comeback, but for a squad loaded with talented runners who can make plays, the fact that neither the kickoff nor punt return teams have any sort of special play this season is alarming. There almost seems to be an attitude by the unit to just take the ball and let the offense do the work, which considering the offense is not a bad thing, but sometimes you need a special play on the return to break the will of the other team. Carter and Newsome take the majority of kicks, and yet they usually just hold the ball. With some big games coming up, these guys are going to likely need to make a play in order for the Heels to win.
Javonte Williams draws a short straw here simply because the air attack was so important on Saturday, but he still added to his highlight reel by getting the game-deciding touchdown, still getting over 100 yards on the day, and nailing an absolute perfect pancake block late in the fourth quarter that I couldn’t find a link to because the Wake player ended up having to be taken off the field (11/16 edit, thanks to the eagle-eyed Twitter user who found it.) The block was so strong they actually had to look and determine if Javonte targeted on the play, which he didn’t. He’s now up to 868 yards on the year on the ground and 247 in the air, and his draft stock keeps rising...his backfield mate of Michael Carter “only” had 77 yards on the ground, but had 55 in the air including a glorious touchdown catch where he was able to flex about five yards before hitting the end zone. In general, Wake stacked themselves up front in a “pick your poison” move to try and take away the ground game, and yet even with Howell’s ridiculous performance the duo still made themselves heard...Jeremiah Gemmel was left hung out to dry a lot during the bad performance of the defense, and it’s not an indictment on his play so much as how the scheme consistently left him defending a receiver on obvious third down passing plays. He finished the day with 10 tackles and seemed to get a second wind during that run...same for Chazz Surratt who’s looked lost several times this season, but had the sack that effectively ended the game on fourth down and showed he still has the potential to be something special when he has the support. He ended up leading the team with 14 tackles on the day, and the bye week is coming at a great time for him for this final stretch...finally, shout out to Ben Kiernan for his punting on his first two attempts, as Wake, for obvious reasons, sold out to try and block and he was able to get them off cleanly. Even one block may have swung the game in another direction.