UNC Football needed to prove something when Virginia came to Kenan Stadium on Saturday night, and the Tar Heels did just that with a decisive 59-39 victory over the Cavaliers. Carolina hadn’t beaten UVA in four straight tries, and the Cavs’ Mandy Alonso donated some good bulletin board material when he spoke about the Heels’ inability to finish games earlier this week. Tonight was all Tar Heels, though, and the offensive numbers are eye-popping.
Everyone figured that the game would be a shootout and that very much looked like the case early on. Carolina scored three touchdowns in the first quarter and looked like they might be necessitating an early warm up of the Wahoos’ busses. The second quarter turned ugly, including one of the worst decisions we’ve seen out of Sam Howell in Carolina blue that resulted in an interception in the end zone. Thankfully, it was just a blip on an otherwise incredible night for UNC’s offense.
Carolina’s offense never punted in the game. Their only drives that ended in no points were the aforementioned pick and an ill-advised 54-yard field goal attempt that was out of the range for Grayson Atkins. UNC fell just one yard shy of 700 yards of total offense in the game behind Howell’s 307 passing yards. He threw for five touchdowns, which was obviously very impressive, but the Carolina ground game showed up and showed out in a big way. The Heels amassed 392 yards on the ground with three touchdowns. Ty Chandler finished the game with 198 yards and two scores while Howell picked up 112 yards with his feet as well.
The effectiveness of the running backs was a direct contrast to Virginia’s game plan, which was to rely exclusively on the arm of Brennan Armstrong. He threw for 554 of Virginia’s 574 total yards with four touchdowns. Fortunately for the Heels, they knew quickly that the Cavs had no intentions of running the ball pretty much ever. That allowed them to pretty much sell out to try and stop Armstrong and his receivers. Were they always successful? Definitely not, as Virginia scored 39 points, but UNC’s offense was more balanced and more effective in the end to secure the big win.
Howell’s best weapon, Josh Downs, was able to shine all over the field. He caught two touchdowns on his way to 203 yards on nine targets. The Howell-Downs connection was absolutely lethal in a way that we’ve only seen glimpses of to this point. That’s encouraging against competition stiffer than that posed by the likes of Georgia State. It would be easy for some of that to get lost in the emergence of the ground game, but Howell is going to need his weapons to help him the same way guys like Dazz Newsome and Dyami Brown did before they headed off to the NFL. Downs certainly did that tonight.
There will be time to squint your eyes at the defense for allowing Armstrong to abuse them for four quarters, but that’s what he does to defenses. He came into this game as one of the best quarterbacks in the conference and everyone saw why with his performance. The good news is that every team in the ACC doesn’t have a signal caller of that caliber on their team, but it’s definitely something that needs to be tightened up moving forward.
Virginia has gotten the best of UNC in football and basketball for the last several seasons. It feels good to finally get a win against a team that has simply had their number the last four seasons. Carolina needed a win tonight in order to stay in the driver’s seat toward ending up in Charlotte at the end of the season, and they did enough to stay in the running.
UNC takes on Georgia Tech in Atlanta next weekend. The Yellow Jackets gave Clemson quite a scare earlier today, so the Heels will need to be ready.