By R.L. Bynum
CHAPEL HILL — Carolina rebounded from a frustrating opening-game loss, but the Tar Heels’ offensive line showed that it’s still a work in progress.
UNC’s offense got off to a hot start in Saturday night’s home opener and scored 28 points in a nine-minute second-half stretch. But the Tar Heels’ inability to get much going on the ground against a Sun Belt Conference team — except when quarterback Sam Howell wasn’t running free — showed that the line needs to improve fast.
The No. 24 Tar Heels easily beat 0–2 Georgia State 59–17, but the blocking is going to have to get better as they head into ACC play next week at home against Virginia (2–0).
“We didn’t run the ball well in the first half,” UNC coach Mack Brown said. “We still have some work to do in that area. We’ve got to look at that.”
Center Brian Anderson started for UNC (1–1) after playing only two snaps in the opener, but left guard Joshua Ezeudu was out with a lower-body injury. The experienced line that was expected to be solid is off to an uneven start without Javonte Williams and Michael Carter running behind them.
“Running the ball and making sure we have solid pass protection are the two most critical things that we’ve got to analyze and try to figure out is how we haven’t been able to be as good as last year and move forward with it,” Brown said.
Take away Howell’s 104 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns and UNC only ran for 67 yards before starters were pulled midway through the fourth quarter. Tennessee transfer running back Ty Chandler only mustered 58 yards and a touchdown.
Although Howell’s running was a boost, it also can be concerning.
“He’s got to just do a better job of sliding. He doesn’t like to, but he’s got to take care of himself,” Brown said.
Howell may have surprised himself with his 62-yard touchdown run.
“When I was running it, I was thinking, ‘dang, someone hasn’t caught me from behind yet?,’ ” Howell said. “It was awesome, man.”
Despite not consistently giving Howell time to throw, it was a much smoother effort for him as he usually threw the ball quickly. When he had a clean pocket at times in the second half, there was a noticeable difference.
“We made a lot of improvements from last week to this week,” Howell said. “There’s still a lot that we can clean up.”
Other than Chandler colliding with him to force a fumble and a couple of overthrows, it was a crisp Howell effort as he threw three touchdown passes to give him multiple scoring strikes for the 22nd time in 27 career games.
Howell finished 21 of 29 for 352 yards and no interceptions and became the second player in UNC program history to throw for 300 yards and rush for 100. Marquis Williams did it against Notre Dame in 2014.
When that was pointed out to Howell after the game, it put a smile on his face because he said that Williams was his favorite player ever.
“It felt good,” Howell said. “I kind of felt like myself out there today.”
Downs again was his favorite target with eight catches on 11 targets for 73 yards and a touchdown. But Antoine Green had three catches for 117 yards and a touchdown and Emery Simmons has three catches for 73 yards.
Howell showed on UNC’s opening drive that this game would be different from his effort in the 17–10 loss at Virginia Tech in the opener. He hit Josh Downs for 13 yards and Antoine Green for 31 before running the final 22 yards to score his seventh career touchdown.
Howell threw a ball 62 yards to Green on UNC’s second drive. Green was able to snag the ball away from Georgia State cornerback Jaylon Jones at the end zone for a 57-yard scoring strike and it was 14–0.
N.C. A&T transfer Noel Ruiz kicked a 37-yard field goal for Georgia State with 3:28 left in the first quarter after Howell’s fumble.
Howell was back to business on the next drive, though, hitting Emery Simmons along the right sideline. Simmons juked a defender and went the final 12 yards on a 30-yard scoring play.
Georgia State couldn’t get much offense going until Cornelious Brown’s 4-yard touchdown run capped a 17-play, 75-yard drive. The drive, full of option plays and mostly on the ground, made it 21–10 and the Heels followed with a three-and-out possession.
Georgia State then gifted UNC a field goal by failing on a fake punt on a fourth-and-15 at its 12. Six plays later Grayson Atkins’ 29-yard boot made it 24–10. Atkins pushed a 34-attempt wide left to end the opening drive of the second half.
UNC finally found an offensive rhythm again midway through the third quarter with a 9-play, 63-yard drive. The Heels scored three touchdowns In the last 5:32 of the third quarter.
Running back British Brooks scored from a yard out with 5:32 left for his second career rushing touchdown. Chandler took a pitch from Howell and easily ran two yards for a TD with 2:46 left and Howell ran for a career-high run of 62 yards for a score with eight seconds remaining.
Downs’ five-yard TD reception from Howell with 11:22 left in the game pushed the lead to 52–10.
Georgia State tacked on a 2-yard touchdown run by Marcus Carroll with 8:13 left.
Backup UNC quarterback Jacolby Criswell connected with Bryson Nesbit for a 47-yard touchdown pass with 4:03 remaining.
Strong safety Ja’Qurious Conley left in the first half with a left hand injury.
UNC welcomes Virginia to Kenan Stadium next Saturday night at 7:30 (ACC Network) for both teams’ ACC opener. The Cavaliers rolled to a 42–14 victory over Illinois.
No. 24 UNC 59, Ga. State 17
Photos by Jeffrey A. Camarati/UNC Athletics Communications