By R.L. Bynum
There were hints that North Carolina’s young and thin defense had flaws during the first two games of the season. When Virginia Tech scored 31 second-half points last week, it became more apparent but was masked by a productive offensive game.
In Tallahassee, Fla., on Saturday night, there was no hiding the No. 5 Tar Heels’ defensive woes after UNC gave up 31 points for the second consecutive half.
With Carolina’s usually potent offense unable to get going until it was too late in the second half, Florida State (2–3, 1–3 ACC) had its best game of the season in a 31–28 victory over the Tar Heels. A terrific second-half effort from UNC’s defense wasn’t enough.
“The second half is a team we want to be,” UNC coach Mack Brown said. “In fact, that’s the best we probably played as a team all year in the second half and as poorly as we’ve played together in the first half.”
Javonte Williams nearly did it all for UNC (3–1, 3–1), with 119 rushing yards, 67 reception yards and two touchdowns, but he couldn’t catch a fourth-down pass from quarterback Sam Howell with 35 seconds left that could have set up a potential game-tying field goal.
“We dug ourselves in a huge hole at halftime,” Brown said. “I thought we would come back and settle down and win the game in the second half. We had our opportunities and we turned the momentum.”
The Tar Heels’ defense shut out FSU in the second half but the 24-point hole was too big to overcome. UNC simply ran out of time to complete what would have been the largest comeback in program history.
“I challenged them at halftime and said you are what you’re going to play like the second half as a team for the rest of the year,” Brown said. “They played as hard as they could possibly play the second half.”
Once the Seminoles knew late in the game that Carolina had to pass, it made it even more of a challenge to protect Howell.
“When you’re one dimensional and have to throw it every time, we’re not great at pass protection. We know that,” Brown said. “That’s why we run the ball so much and have play-action. They were blitzing some and tried to get Sam off his rhythm. When we get one dimensional against really good athletes, we’re not as good.”
Howell finished 20 of 36 for three touchdowns and one interception. He threw for a season-high 374 yards, which was his second-highest total of his career.
Florida State quickly turned a blocked punt into a 23-yard Jordan Travis touchdown run in the first 2:20 of the game. Travis connected with Daniel Preston on a 58-yard touchdown pass on the first play of the second quarter to set up a 24-yard Ryan Fitzgerald field goal to put the Noles up 10–0 with 12:59 left in the first half.
After the Seminoles stopped Williams on a fourth-and-one at the FSU 25, they drove 75 yards in nine plays, with Travis diving in from a yard out for a touchdown. UNC’s next drive ended when Joshua Kaindoh intercepted a dump pass from Howell and returned it 25 yards for a touchdown to make it 24–0 with 2:46 left in the first half.
Williams finally got UNC points on a 1-yard run around the right side with 1:02 left in the first half but FSU came right back with a 75-yard, five-play drive. A 12-yard TD pass from Travis to Camren McDonald with 17 seconds left made it 31–7 at halftime.
Needing points badly, Howell couldn’t connect with a heavily covered Dazz Newsome on a throw to the end zone on fourth down after going 74 yards on 10 plays.
Howell made up for it on the next two drives. He threw a 38-yard touchdown pass to Williams and a two-point conversion pass to Walston, then a 33-yard TD pass to Beau Corrales to cut the deficit to 31–21 with a second left in the third quarter.
Trey Morrison’s interception on the last play of the third quarter gave UNC a golden chance but Grayson Atkins was wide left on a 44-yard field-goal attempt. After making 6 of 7 attempts from 40 to 49 yards and one of two tries from behind 50 yards last season at Furman, he’s missed all three tries of 40 or more yards this season.
Dyami Brown pulled UNC within one score with a 25-yard touchdown reception with 4:58 left.
The Tar Heels try to rebound at home next Saturday against rival N.C. State at noon on either ESPN.
Florida State 31, No. 5 North Carolina 28
Pool photos by Don Juan Moore