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Orange Bowl: Player of the Game

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Carolina’s quarterback had a heavier load to shoulder without key players, but he gave Texas A&M all they could handle for three and a half quarters

Capital One Orange Bowl - Texas A&M v North Carolina Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

It was always going to be a tough ask for Carolina to take down #5 Texas A&M without their two 1,000-yard rushers, leading receiver, and top tackler. UNC’s defense, with a late season renaissance of youth, was actually better positioned to play a big game without Chazz Surratt. But the offense was losing too many playmakers, and the only rushers of consequence that gave its attack balance.

Sam Howell, Carolina’s star sophomore quarterback, was nearly up to the task. It did not look that way early in the game. Howell had a curious interception on UNC’s first drive that gave the Aggies possession in the red zone. It was almost like Carolina was playing the original Nintendo, and they had to power down, take the game out, blow into the cartridge, then start again.

Carolina went run heavy on the next two drives, which both resulted in field goals. With the Heels down 10-6, Sam Howell finally started cooking, hitting Dazz Newsome three times for 50 yards, culminating in a spectacular 28-yard touchdown catch that put Carolina up three.

This game did resemble the Notre Dame game on the line of scrimmage. Carolina found it tough to keep Howell clean in the pocket, and the running backs didn’t provide enough magic or tackle-breaking to take pressure off the passing game. Howell did throw two more touchdowns to freshman Josh Downs, the second one being of the one-play, 75-yard touchdown variety that put the Tar Heels up 27-20 early in the fourth quarter. Those touchdown catches were a specialty of Dyami Brown, so it’s nice to see a young receiver take up the mantle.

Let’s take a look at that beauty real quick:

In a season full of “what if’s” many Carolina fans may wonder how the game would turn out if Khafre Brown and Dazz Newsome were able to pull in two more deep passes from Howell, but those misses shouldn’t detract from what was a gutsy performance. Sam Howell finished the game with 234 yards and three touchdowns, which puts him above some esteemed company:

More important to me than any of those stats is how UNC’s seasoned sophomore quarterback reacted to the loss and led his team in the “fifth” quarter. When facing the media postgame, Howell said,

“I expect big things (next season). I have two years under my belt now... for myself, I just want to be the leader of this football team and I want to take this team to great places. I think we have a lot of potential in that locker room and lot of really good, younger players that are going to work harder than anyone in the country this offseason. For this team, we’ll just keep going in the right direction. This program is going where we want it to go. We came up short tonight but it still doesn’t take away from the great things we’ve been able to accomplish as a team... I told our seniors in the locker room, they’ll always be remembered as the guys that brought this program back to where we’re trying to take it. I promised those guys that we’ll be back and we’ll be on top next year.”

Carolina as a team and as a program have come so far in two years. That rise has occurred in lock step with Sam Howell’s development and maturation as a future NFL franchise quarterback. I suspect that next year will be his last in Chapel Hill. I have every reason to believe that he can help Carolina take the next step in its rise in the college football hierarchy, and perhaps win a Heisman Trophy on his way out.

Now get some rest and try a burger!