By R.L. Bynum
The feet on one Tar Heel are making a more significant impact on games than last season.
They would be the feet of Sam Howell, North Carolina’s sophomore quarterback, who couldn’t take his chances on running that much last season because of the Tar Heels’ depleted quarterback depth.
A stronger Howell is taking advantage of his chances to run, and that helped push No. 12 UNC to 2-0 with a 26–22 victory Saturday at Boston College. UNC held on after some costly mistakes made it closer.
“Definitely, when I see space, I want to take advantage of that,” Howell said. “I feel like a lot of teams don’t really account for me as a runner. So, there’s a lot of space out there. Whenever I can take advantage of the space they give me, I try to.”
Trey Morrison helped put the game away when he returned an interception on a potential game-tying two-point conversion pass 99 yards to add two UNC points in the game’s final minute.
“I was reading to the field side and I didn’t see anything come that way,” Morrison said. “I saw the quarterback go to the boundary. I saw the running back flare out, and I just saw the ball in the air, and I went to go get it.”
BC quarterback Phil Jurkovec had just connected with C.J. Lewis on a 2-yard touchdown pass with 45 seconds left to pull within two points. Chazz Surratt sealed the win by recovering the ensuing onside kick.
After rushing for only 35 yards last season, Howell had five runs of six yards or more, including a 20-yard play, against BC. All but one of those were on third-down scrambles.
But it’s the threat of the run that gives opposing defenses something else to think about that is giving the Tar Heels’ offense another dimension.
Opponents can’t just worry about covering UNC’s talented receivers. They have to deal with the possibility that Howell will make a run for it, as well as his ability to extend plays. As if trying to stop Javonte Williams and Michael Carter wasn’t enough to defend on the ground.
Carter ran for 121 yards and Williams added 57 and one touchdown as Carolina outrushed BC 176–40.
“I was probably more impressed with Sam making plays with his feet than ever before,” UNC coach Mack Brown said. “He did some of that in the bowl game, but he made some huge plays tonight with his feet that’s really going to help us.”
There was no better example than late in the first half when he was scrambling to make a play. While straddling the line of scrimmage, he threw a short pass right in stride to Williams on a 41-yard scoring play.
“When I saw him scramble, I just tried to get open,” Williams said. “When I caught it, I was wide open.”
There were times when Howell’s desire to extend plays got him into trouble and he kept the ball for too long when he’d have been better advised to throw the ball away or take a sack. In one case early in the second half, Williams bailed him out by recovering Howell’s fumble after being pressured.
Howell threw two touchdown passes to give him 41 in only 15 games, already tied for the fifth-most career TD passes in Carolina program history with Mitch Trubisky (2014–16). Fourth on the list with 58 in 45 games over four seasons is T.J. Yates (2007–10).
Howell finished 14 of 26 for 225 yards and one interception for a 144.2 passer rating.
It was another big game for UNC’s defense, which has given up 28 points through two games, the fewest against FBS teams since allowing 27 in 2009 to Connecticut and East Carolina. Surratt led the way with eight tackles (all solo) and one sack in addition to breaking up a pass and hurrying the quarterback once. Don Chapman added seven tackles (also solo).
UNC scored on both first-quarter drives.
Howell’s 24-yard touchdown pass to Khafre Brown completed a 12-play, 83-yard, 4:13 drive on UNC’s first possession to put the Tar Heels ahead 7-0 with 7:35 left in the first quarter. The Tar Heels went 3-of-3 on third downs in that drive.
UNC was efficient again with a 6-play, 48-yard, 2:24 drive that produced a 1-yard touchdown run by Williams with 1:21 left in the first quarter.
After Morrison’s big hit kept B.C.’s Hunter Long from making a catch, the Eagles settled for a 35-yard Aaron Boumerhi field goal with 3:46 left in the opening quarter. After another drop by Long early in the second quarter, Boumerhi booted a 27-yard field goal. He added a 30-yard field goal on the final first-half play to cut UNC’s lead to 21-16.
Morrison said that it appeared that Long was wary of another big hit after that crushing first-quarter blow led to him getting medical attention.
“I do feel that hit kind of did that,” Morrison said. “Every time he was running across the middle, he was looking. He was looking more.”
Cornerback Brandon Sebastian intercepted a deflected Howell pass to give BC the ball at the UNC 5. Three plays later, Jurkovec threw a 5-yard scoring pass to running back David Bailey to cut the Tar Heels’ lead 14-13 with 11:35 left in the first half.
Graduate transfer Grayson Atkins’ 35-yard field goal padded UNC’s lead with 2:32 left in the third quarter. He missed wide left on a 47-yard attempt with 5:46 remaining in the game that might have eliminated the last-minute drama.
“I knew it was gonna be a hard-fought game,” Brown said. “We had chances that we could have pulled away. Give them credit. We didn’t. They’ve got good players too; that’s why we play these games. It’s the team that plays the best that day. And today we were better than they were.”
Carolina returns home next Saturday for a noon game against Virginia Tech (2–0), which won 38–31 at Duke (0–4) on Saturday.
No. 12 North Carolina 26, Boston College 22
Pool photos by John Quackenbos/Boston College Athletics