By R.L. Bynum
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. –– North Carolina players at the Orange Bowl heard the doubters who didn’t give the Tar Heels a chance after four stars opted out of the game against the highest-ranked team to miss the College Football Playoff.
The defensive unit, which was shaky at times during the regular season, seemed to take it upon itself to prove the experts wrong. Not that the offense was amused, either.
Considering the opponent, UNC’s defensive effort was its best of the season for three quarters. In the fourth quarter, though, No. 5 Texas A&M broke through for 24 points to hand the depleted No. 13 Tar Heels a 41–27 defeat Saturday night at Hard Rock Stadium.
“I’m really, really proud of the guys,” UNC coach Mack Brown said. “I’m proud of the turnaround in two years. I told them in the locker room a few minutes ago that I’m proud that they got us here, and now the next time we come we need to win, and that’s what it’s about.”
Seventy-one years after their last major bowl, the Tar Heels (8–4), 10-point underdogs, not only showed the strides that program has made, they demonstrated that they should be one of the nation’s top teams next season.
Without running backs Michael Carter and Javonte Williams, wide receiver Dyami Brown and linebacker Chazz Surratt, the strong effort made a statement that most national observers didn’t expect. It’s one that will likely be remembered when preseason polls come out.
“We don’t talk a lot about what we didn’t play with tonight, but we lost 4,000 yards coming into the game and still had a chance against the No. 5 team to win,” Coach Brown said. “This is going to be a special team.”
Fourth-quarter Devon Achane touchdown runs of 76 yards and 1 yard put the game away for the Aggies (9–1).
“We knew we were going to have trouble rushing,” Brown said. “We were just hoping we could throw it well enough to have a chance to still win the game. I did think our coaches in a very short week figured out a game plan to give us a chance.”
UNC’s defense forced five three-and-outs for Texas A&M. The Aggies came into the game No. 3 in the country in third-down conversions at 57% but couldn’t replicate that against the Tar Heels for most of the game.
“It just means that Carolina could be more noticed on a national level,” outside linebacker Tomon Fox said. “We’re able to compete with anybody, even if it’s in the top 10 or anybody, a ranked team. Carolina is able to compete with them.”
After Texas A&M allowed only four sacks during the entire regular season, Tomon Fox and Trey Morrison each sacked quarterback Kellen Mond on a late second-quarter drive. UNC finished with three sacks.
What changed for the defense in the final quarter?
“I think they wore us down. I mean, we hung in there, but you miss tackles — we had a lot of young guys out there and it was a hot night,” Brown said. “We had trouble moving it in the fourth quarter, and we had trouble stopping them, so I think, again, give them credit.”
Sophomore Eugene Asante stepped into Surratt’s linebacker position and played well (a team-leading 10 tackles) as Carolina kept pressure on Mond and kept him off balance. Many times on key plays, he was off-target. But he was good on fourth-quarter drives in which UNC’s defense made some mistakes.
“You start looking at Eugene Asante, I thought he did a good job tonight,” Brown said. “Did he mess some things up? Of course he did because he hasn’t played. But he showed that he’s got a chance to be a really good player.”
On the offensive side, British Brooks (53 yards) and Josh Henderson didn’t give UNC the threat of Williams or Carter but Brooks had his moments. Dyami Brown’s younger brother Khafre made some nice catches (2 for 40 yards). Freshman Josh Downs had 28 receptions yards and one touchdown before collecting 85 reception and one touchdown Saturday.
Howell showed some flaws with a first-half interception and an overthrow in the second half, but he played like the guy expected to contend for the Heisman Trophy for most of the night. Howell was 18 of 31 yards for 234 yards and three touchdowns. The three TD passes gave him 68 for his career to break Trevor Lawrence’s ACC record of 66 through two seasons.
“I didn’t put any extra pressure on myself,” Howell said. “I just tried to go out there and be the player that I am, just try to bring these younger guys along, try to get some confidence, try to get some younger guys involved in the game. I made a couple mistakes tonight. The interception early really hurt us, a couple other plays in the game that really ended up costing us the game, so I’ve got to get better myself.”
UNC’s defense started well by forcing a three-and-out on the game’s opening drive but Andre White intercepted a Howell pass that, after an Aggies penalty, gave A&M the ball at the Carolina 28. Seven plays later, Isaiah Spiller, on his fifth run of the drive, scored on a 9-yard run on a fourth-and-one with 9:11 left in the first quarter.
The Tar Heels moved the ball well on the second drive with a 17-yard Brooks run kick-starting it. After failing to convert on a third-and-goal at the A&M 9, UNC settled on a 29-yard Grayson Atkins field goal with 4:31 left to make it 7–3.
After another A&M 3-and-out, a 22-yard punt return by Dazz Newsome set UNC up at the UNC 49. Howell ran for 15 yards to convert a fourth-and-three on a drive that produced a 32-yard Atkins field goal with 11:09 left in the first half.
A big stop on third down by Asante on a run by Mond forced the Aggies to settle on a 25-yard Seth Small field goal with 7:40 left to make it 10–6.
Howell hit Newsome on a 12-yard pass to ignite the next drive, then ran for 18 more before hitting Newsome on a 28-yard touchdown pass on a diving catch in the right corner of the end zone. That gave UNC its first lead of the game at 13–10 with 4:56 left in the first half.
The Aggies took a 17–13 lead on a 3-yard Spiller touchdown run with 20 seconds left in the half.
Khafre Brown’s receptions of 26 and 14 yards sparked UNC’s second drive after halftime. The drive ended with a 10-yard touchdown pass to Josh Downs, who came out of the backfield to catch it in the right corner of the end zone. That put UNC up 20–17 with 8:01 left in the third quarter.
On the first play of the next drive, Howell hit Downs on a 75-yard scoring pass down the left sideline to give the Tar Heels a brief lead. It was the third-longest touchdown pass in Orange Bowl history and the longest since 1959.
“I asked the guys to play with confidence and they did,” Coach Brown said. “We had the ball with seven minutes left and a chance to win with a tie game, and then we go for the third-and-two and don’t make it. We go for the fourth-and-one and don’t make it, because it was under three minutes and the clock running.”
Mond tied it on a 4-yard touchdown run with 10:11 left.
UNC’s defense again forced A&M to settle for a Small field goal, a 23-yard kick, to tie it. On Achane’s 76-touchdown reception, he ran past Don Chapman and down the left sideline with 3:44 left put the Aggies ahead 34– 27.
A&M clinched the game when it stopped UNC on a fourth-and-one with 2:24 left and Achane scored on a 1-yard touchdown run with 1:34 left.
No. 5 Texas A&M 41, No. 13 UNC 27