By R.L. Bynum
For three quarters, the shaky play of North Carolina’s offensive line couldn’t block out doubts about the high expectations for this Tar Heels team.
The line couldn’t contain blitzes, and quarterback Sam Howell many times had trouble recognizing them. But the Tar Heels finally wore down that Syracuse defense with the relentless power running of Javonte Williams and the elusiveness of fellow running back Michael Carter.
After only scoring 10 points in the first three quarters, No. 18 UNC used three fourth-quarter touchdown runs by Williams to turn a tight game into a blowout and a 31-6 season-opening victory in front of a mostly empty Kenan Stadium.
“We felt like it’s probably a great opener for us because there’s a lot of things we’ve got to fix,” UNC coach Mack Brown said. “And, at the same time, they can see that we have a chance to be really good. Now there were so many positives that we can build off of.”
It took only 5:23 of the fourth quarter for Williams to give UNC a comfortable lead with a 1-yard play to start the quarter and 6-yard runs with 11:33 left and 9:37 left. Carter broke loose for a 45-yard run on one of those scoring drives and finished with 78 rushing yards.
The Tar Heels (1-0) were a fourth-quarter team a year ago when they outscored opponents 120-51 in that quarter. It was 21-0 Saturday.
Howell blamed mistakes for the slow start.
“We kind of weren’t playing like ourselves in the first half. They were doing some different things on the defensive side of the ball. So, we just had to adjust a little bit at halftime,” Howell said. “We were killing drives with one play, one mistake. We’ve got to stay consistent and play clean football every drive. Because we’d have one bad play kill the drive, that’s what was happening a lot in the first half. So, we need to make sure we stay consistent and just play consistent football.”
Howell finished 25 of 34 for 295 yards, one touchdown pass and two interceptions. It was the first game of his college career without multiple touchdown passes, ending the longest active streak in the FBS.
Depth is an issue on an offensive line that played without left guard Joshua Ezeudu, who Brown said may play next week against Charlotte.
Howell said Syracuse forced UNC to change their game plan.
“With their secondary, they’re playing really deep,” Howell said. “They’re kind of bailing on everything, so we knew our deep game wasn’t really going to be there. So, we had to take the underneath stuff because that’s what they were giving.”
Howell had success throwing to his running backs with Williams catching one pass for 22 yards and Carter pulling down six passes for 60 yards.
“I honestly like catching the ball more than running because it’s just like a lot of space on the edge,” Williams said. “And usually when you catch a ball, you just really have to make one person miss.”
The strong fourth quarter wasn’t new for UNC. Scoring three rushing touchdowns after scoring only 13 last season wasn’t as expected.
“I think we just had to get back in our rhythm,” said Williams, who had 57 rushing yards on 14 carries. “We hadn’t really got tackled since December, so we had a lot of time off. We just had to get back in our rhythm. In the second half, we just came together and made plays.”
Williams is the first player to rush for three touchdowns in an opener since Ronnie McGill did it against William & Mary in 2004.
Howell had his bad moments, including when he threw into double coverage on a pass early in the third quarter that Andre Cisco intercepted. That produced a 24-yard field goal from Andrew Szmyt. Howell had two passes intercepted after only throwing seven interceptions during his freshman season.
“I was trying to look the safety off and I thought I did a good job with that,” said Howell, who had the most passing yards by a UNC quarterback in an opener since T.J. Yates threw for 412 yards against LSU in 2010. “I went to the right side of the field, so thought I would be able to get it to Dyami [Brown]. I shouldn’t have thrown the ball, even though I tried to look them off. But they made a good play and I’m gonna learn from them.”
Brown did have a game-high 94 receiving yards on six catches.
Furman transfer kicker Grayson Atkins, a graduate student, pushed UNC’s lead to 10-6 on a 31-yard field goal with 3:18 left in the third quarter before Williams ignited the fourth-quarter surge.
UNC’s defense, led by linebacker Chaz Surratt’s nine tackles, recorded seven sacks and brought a better pass rush than a year ago. There were several play-makers in addition to Surratt, with defensive back Myles Wolfolk and linebackers Kaimon Rucker and Jeremiah Gemmel all collecting five tackles.
“I really thought that the defense played well throughout the game. Wish we would force for some turnovers, we’ve got to do a better job in that area,” Mack Brown said. The lone turnover was a Giovanni Biggers interception. “I think the biggest difference in our defense is that we’re two deep. And we have fresh legs.”
The six points Syracuse scored were the fewest allowed against an ACC opponent since Duke scored six on Nov. 7, 2009. The Orange’s 202 total yards were the fewest by an ACC opponent since Boston College’s 198 in 2009.
It took UNC 10 plays and just over four minutes to turn the game’s opening drive into an 11-yard touchdown pass from Howell to tight end Garrett Walston.
A tipped Howell slant pass was intercepted on Carolina’s next drive, giving Syracuse the ball at the UNC 31. Carolina’s defense didn’t allow a first down on the drive, though, stopping the Orange on a fourth-and-short.
Dazz Newsome tested UNC’s defense again when he muffed a punt, which Syracuse recovered at the UNC 21 early in the second quarter. Carolina quickly forced a field-goal attempt, which Szmyt made from 37 yards out not long after Atkins hit the left upright with a 50-yard attempt.
Now it’s on to another home game next Saturday in a mostly empty stadium against Charlotte, which lost its opener at Appalachian State.
Pool photos by Robert Willett