By R.L. Bynum
Maybe Mack Brown wasn’t just talking his team down when he said that although a lot of people said his team is good, they still have to prove it.
That’s still the case after Friday night’s 17–10 loss in No. 10 North Carolina’s opener at Virginia Tech. There’s still time to show some of those expectations can be realized, but there were only hints of that in a raucous Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, Va.
The Hokies fans reacted as if they had beaten one of the better teams in the country, though, storming the field for the first time in years.
“Obviously, the shine’s off with the rating sure doesn’t matter tonight,” UNC coach Mack Brown said. “We were overrated with the way we played. Our shine is off and we can be a really good football team. We did some things in the second half that are really, really positive.”
With an experienced but shaky offensive line giving quarterback Sam Howell little time to throw and many of his weapons from a year ago gone, it was a rough night unless he was throwing to wide receiver Josh Downs.
There was a good first for Howell — such as being the first UNC quarterback to throw 69 career touchdown passes — but also a very bad one. After never throwing a fourth-quarter interception in his first two seasons, he threw two against the Hokies.
“We just got to go back and work on it as a team,” Howell said. “We can’t let this one game define our season. It’s over with. There’s nothing we can do about now. It sucks, but we just got to keep getting better. I’ve got to get better personally and I’m going to get better. My team deserves better from
me and I’m going to give it to them.”
The fourth quarter was when Howell shone more often than not in his first two seasons, but he couldn’t come up with the game-tying drive in the final minutes.
Howell made a huge pass to Emery Simmons for an 18-yard game on a fourth-and-11 with 1:12 left but had a desperation pass intercepted by Charmarri Conner with 37 seconds left to put the game away.
“In that scenario, I’m always thinking, don’t take a sack, don’t take a sack,” Howell said of the last interception. “So, I was just trying to put the ball away and another guy had spun me around, and it causes a bad throw. I was trying to put the ball way out of bounds.”
Howell praised the Virginia Tech defense.
“I thought they did a good job,” Howell said. “That’s probably the worst offensive offensive performance since I’ve been here. So, credit to those guys if they played hard. They played harder than us. They really dominate us all night long, so we just got to get better.”
Howell finished 17 of 32 for 208 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions while being sacked six times. More than half of those passing yards were to Downs, who caught eight passes for 123 yards and a touchdown.
“You can’t expect the guy to go out there and have a great game throwing the ball when you’ve got people around you all the time,” Brown said of Howell. “You’ve got to protect your quarterback.
“I did think the sacks were a surprise and disappointing and that’s something that,” Brown said. “We’ve got to really look at we’ve been talking about that for two years. And then in an opening ballgame I thought we would be really good up front, and I’m not sure. We did run the ball better in the second half.”
Howell still thought UNC would win in the end.
“We had a chance to win and we just didn’t make enough plays,” Howell said. “We certainly didn’t get into a rhythm like we’re used to. At times, I was getting frustrated and I was just trying to get too much.”
The UNC defense that many thought would be better instead had plenty of missed assignments and blown coverages. The Hokies didn’t take advantage of all of them, but enough to have control for most of the first half. The Tar Heels’ defense forced a trio of 3-and-outs at the end of the first half and start of the second half and only allowed three second-half points.
Virginia Tech needed only eight plays to go 75 yards and score on a 4-yard touchdown run by Braxton Burmeister on the game’s opening drive.
After Trey Morrison recovered a Keeshan King fumble at the UNC 9 and a quick 22-yard Howell pass to Simmons, Carolina tried to shift the early momentum late in the first quarter.
All they did was delay falling behind 14–0, which came with 3:05 left in the second quarter when Burmeister connected with tight end James Mitchell on an 11-yard, third-down scoring strike.
The Hokies’ Jermaine Waller swiped a pass from Justin Olson for an interception midway through the third quarter to stunt the little rhythm UNC’s offense had built up.
After converting on a fourth-and-inches, Howell hit Josh Downs, who took it home on a 37-yard scoring play with 4:20 left in the third quarter to cut the Heels’ deficit to 14–7.
With that touchdown, Howell set the UNC career touchdown pass record with 69. He reached that total in just over two seasons to beat the previous mark of 68 by Darian Durant in four seasons (2001–4)
Tech’s John Parker Romo made it 17–7 with a 48-yard field goal with 14:18 left in the game. It was his first attempt since 2018 for Tulsa, where his previous best was a 34-yard field goal.
It got worse when Howell’s pass attempt to Simmons on a slant pass was dropped on a fourth-and-3 with 12:34 left at UNC’s 43. J’Qurious Conley intercepted a pass Burmeister threw as he was hit, only to have Tech’s Dax Hollifield intercept Howell two plays later.
After a drive stalled, UNC cut its deficit to 17–10 on Grayson Atkins’ 31-yard field goal with 5:53 left.
The Tar Heels try to rebound at home next week with a Saturday game against Georgia State (7:30 p.m., regional sports networks).