By R.L. Bynum
With a huge road matchup next weekend at No. 9 Miami, the goals were pretty simple for a senior day matchup with Western Carolina: Take care of business, stay away from injuries and play a lot of young guys in the second half.
North Carolina (7–3, 6–3 ACC) checked all of those boxes on Saturday at Kenan Stadium, rolling up a 39-point halftime lead and coasting to a 49–9 victory over the Catamounts (0–3).
“We had better players than they do. Everybody knew that coming into the game. The question was, would you dominate the game like you’re supposed to? At times in the past, programs do not,” UNC coach Mack Brown said. “This was a great opportunity for our guys to stand around and be flat and not play with intensity and I thought we did exactly what we needed to do in this game like we did last year against Mercer.”
A close Clemson victory over Notre Dame in the ACC championship game could give the winner of the Tar Heels-Hurricanes game a spot in the Orange Bowl.
If the above ACC title game scenario plays out, the Tigers and Irish likely earn spots in the College Football Playoff. The Orange Bowl spot would go to the team highest in the College Football Playoff rankings. Entering this weekend, UNC was No. 17 in that ranking and Miami No. 10.
“Last week, we just went completely flat in the second half because Notre Dame just lined up and and got after us. And and I think that got everybody’s attention,” Brown said. “So, we, weren’t going to have that happen today because Western players weren’t good enough.
“But we’ll be playing a front seven full of NFL guys again next week, like we did last week,” Brown said. “So, our big challenge is we’ve had a good year but we want to step to a national level. And we did that for a half last week and then we couldn’t hang in there. So what will we be like with Miami? Next week, they’ve got a quarterback that’s really special they’ve got a defensive line that’s really special.”
With a special quarterback of their on in the Tar Heels’ Sam Howell, running plays probably weren’t the best idea on a day like this. But he showed some moves when he busted through for a career-long 30-yard run.
Playing only in the first half, he connected on 20 of 23 passes for two touchdowns, 287 yards and a 220.5 passer rating. Howell has 64 career touchdown passes, which is tied with Bryn Renner (2010–13) for the second-most in school history, trailing only Darian Durant’s total of 68 (2001–04).
There were plenty of big holes for Carolina’s talented running back duo.
Senior Michael Carter easily waltzed in for his three first-half touchdowns on runs of 17, 22 and five yards and had 73 yards on eight carries in his last home game. He needs 63 yards against Miami to run for 1,000 yards in two consecutive seasons.
“It hasn’t really hit me that is my last game there, and I don’t know how long it’ll take for it to hit,” Carter said. “But I’m definitely grateful that we were able to win today, just end the home season on a positive note.”
Fans see everything that Carter does off the field, but Brown pointed out all of the leadership he provided off the field.
“He has been the No. 1 guy I’ve gone to when we were trying to figure out was it safe with COVID? Were we going to play games? Did the players want to play? Did they feel safe? I would always call or text Michael first and say ‘give me the pulse,’ what do you think the guys are thinking and what questions that they have for me,” Brown said. “He was also the leader with with all the social justice issues. Again he was the one that spearheaded everything that we talked about and did when there were protests all over the country this summer.”
Paxton Robertson’s 40-yard first-quarter field goal was Western Carolina’s only offensive output. UNC responded with Antoine Green catching a 22-yard touchdown pass from Howell on a 4-play, 58-yard drive.
Javonte Williams scored his 19th touchdown of the season on a 3-yard run with 5:39 left in the first half to tie Gio Bernard (2012) for second-most touchdowns by a Tar Heel in a season. Don McCauley’s 21 touchdowns in 1970 are the school record.
Dazz Newsome gave UNC a 42-3 halftime lead on a 26-yard reception with 49 seconds left in the first half.
In his final game in Kenan Stadium, senior Chazz Surratt had six tackles.
“I thought it was emotional, being my last time out there with this group of guys, especially,” Surratt said. “It’s been a pretty good year, so I was just looking forward to the whole thing. The videos and the senior stuff that was going on all week was exciting. It was a good feeling to walk off with on my last time here.”
With the reserves taking over in the third quarter, the scoring rate dropped dramatically as three backup quarterbacks played for North Carolina.
Freshman running back D.J. Jones scored on a 2-yard touchdown run with 18 seconds left in the third quarter on a 9-play, 50-yard drive.
The Catamounts scored a defensive touchdown early in the fourth quarter when Nigel Morris recovered a fumble by UNC quarterback Jace Ruder and returned it 42 yards for a touchdown.
UNC 49, Western Carolina 9
Pool photos by Robert Willett