It was the worst of halves, it was the best of halves. It was the red zone struggles, it was the deep ball beauty. It was the early dropped passes, it was the five straight touchdowns. It was the busted coverage, it was the three interceptions. It was the half of frustration, it was the half of joy. The North Carolina Tar Heels settled all the family business on Saturday night in Raleigh, securing its first bowl appearance since 2016, and snapping the Wolfpack’s three-game winning streak over the Heels. Here are the grades for a regular-season finale as sweet as leftover pumpkin pie.
In a record-breaking regular season, the like of which no UNC freshman has produced, #7 saved his best half for last. Sam Howell shook off a troubled first half to throw for 401 yards (23-33 completions) and three touchdowns. In doing so, he passed State alum Philip Rivers on the single-season touchdown list with 35, turned in just the 12th 400-yard game in UNC history, and cemented his all-time freshman campaign. He wasn’t perfect, of course: Howell still needs to learn how to bail on broken plays and not take needless punishment, and his second quarter interception was dreadful and led directly to State’s only touchdown of the game. After the intermission, however, he didn’t put a foot wrong. His deep ball was terrific, even in poor conditions, he was on the money with his reading of the defense, and he sustained five consecutive touchdown drives over an 18-minute period. Mack Brown said in postgame that it was Sam’s best second half of the season (which is saying something) and we are not inclined to disagree with Mack about anything at the moment.
Running Back: B+
The first half was a massive struggle for the UNC run game. In wet conditions, Phil Longo relied on the run game to set the tone early and...it didn’t go too well. At the half, UNC had just 24 yards on 21 carries. The second half was another story. The third quarter in Raleigh looked for the first ten minutes like it would be remembered as The Javonte Williams Quarter. Williams scored UNC’s first three touchdowns, the first being a 26-yard carry that had been preceded by a 21-yard reception of his. The second was a checkdown reception, and the third a six-yard run in which State’s defenders looked like they’d rather be doing anything other than trying to tackle him. Michael Carter did the bulk of the rushing yardage damage, racking up 97 yards on 16 carries. Carolina’s two-headed rushing attack was lights out all second half, after a rough start to the game.
Wide Receiver and Tight Ends: A-
Were it not for a few bad drops in the early going, this would have been an easy A+. Beau Corrales and Toe Groves were guilty parties in the opening minutes, but the rest of UNC’s pass-catching corps went supersonic. Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome terrorized the Pack’s beleaguered secondary to the tune of 280 combined yards and two touchdowns. Both showed off the full arsenal, with Brown burning State on the deep ball repeatedly, and Newsome with several impressive yards after the catch runs. Corrales got back on in the second half and finished with four receptions, several for key first downs, and 59 yards. UNC didn’t use their tight ends much on the receiving front, but they made strong contributions in the run-blocking game.
Offensive Line: B+
UNC’s line surrendered three sacks in the first half and, as noted above, failed to establish the run. In the second half, they came out with an aggressive edge and imposed their will, starting with UNC’s second possession of the third quarter. The run game got humming thanks in particular to the efforts of Joshua Ezeudu, who had some key blocks in the red zone (an area which tormented the Heels in the first half). Howell didn’t take a take a sack in the second half, and State fell apart down the stretch, unable to muster anything physically against an ascendant UNC line. They flat out bullied the Pack in the trenches after halftime. Sixty minutes of that in the bowl game and we’ll be real happy with what the scoreboard says at the end.
Defensive Line: B+
UNC’s D-line didn’t get a ton of heat on the QB on Saturday on the whole; the only sacks came from the linebacking corps, but they made plays when it mattered. Aaron Crawford brought pressure on Devin Leary in the 3rd quarter, forcing an interception, and State couldn’t get anything going on the ground in the second half. State did break off some big runs off holes up front in the first half, but the real culprits for their scores were in the secondary. UNC’s line did a workmanlike job of seeing the game out and never allowed State to find any kind of rhythm once the Tar Heel offense started clicking.
I’ll get back to you once we are done adequately singing the praises of Chazz Surratt, because it is not this day, that’s for sure. Suffice to say this: He was one of the most obvious concerns coming into the season as a converted quarterback and yet he’s blossomed into one of the best players on the team at his new position. If he isn’t an All-ACC selection it will be criminal. He had another stellar game on Saturday, tallying ten tackles (two of them for loss) and a sack. His partner in crime Jeremiah Gemmel had a strong outing as well, coming up with a forced fumble which he recovered himself and another big tackle in space. If we were to nitpick, Dominique Ross had some iffy moments in coverage, but on the whole this was a terrific performance from the LB unit.
If you had to point to one key play in the game, look no further than Don Chapman’s key interception in the third quarter. With UNC trailing 10-6 at the time, the freshman gave the Heels the ball at midfield and they capitalized by scoring two plays later to take a lead that would only grow. Trey Morrison, plagued by injuries throughout the year, had the second INT of the game, and Myles Dorn came up with the third. It was the first time since 2015 that the Tar Heels had collected three interceptions in one game. Devin Leary had a miserable night throwing the ball, finishing with 7-20 with 98 yards. Storm Duck, who has been asked to play a bit above his pay grade this season due to injuries to the unit, had a rough night early on, giving up the touchdown throw to Tabari Hines, but he settled down as the game went on and had a pass breakup in the endzone.
Special Teams: B
Noah Ruggles accounted for UNC’s first six points with field goals of 20 and 32 yards. He got a pretty good leg into the kick at the end of the half but his 55-yarder missed. Ben Kiernan had four punts for 160 yards, dropping two of them inside the 20, and Michael Carter had a great kick return of 33 yards. On a night when most aspects of the game started off poorly and then went brilliantly, the Special Teams unit was solid, if unspectacular.
This may be a bit generous, considering the fact that UNC’s ongoing woes in the red zone reappeared in the first half. Phil Longo’s playcalling once again resulted in field goals instead of touchdowns. In particular, it appeared the Heels were relying too much on the run game, which looked stalled. UNC outgained the Wolfpack throughout the half, yet still found themselves trailing, which could have proved disastrous. There was also a truly woeful sequence where UNC took two consecutive timeouts on the same play, then took a sack. However, give credit where credit is due: Longo stuck with the run and it was the right move. There were also several terrific play calls in the second half, particularly a fabulously designed fake wheel route pass play that delivered UNC’s final touchdown into the hands of Dazz Newsome. On the defensive side of the ball, UNC buckled down against the pass and didn’t give State any breathing room in the second half. For general man-management and motivation, whatever Mack and Co. said to the boys in the locker room, bottle it up and save it for the bowl game because they came out of there like gangbusters.