By R.L. Bynum

CHAPEL HILL — For one half, it looked like neither defense was going to do anything to slow the production of a pair of quarterbacks who could seemingly only be stopped by turnovers.

In the second half, though, No. 21 North Carolina’s defense did a better job of neutralizing talented junior Virginia quarterback Brennan Armstrong and intercepted a third-quarter pass. Meanwhile, UNC quarterback Sam Howell got a boost from a much-improved running attack and the Tar Heels’ offense kept going.

Oh, and Howell did his part on the ground as well.

The Tar Heels (2–1, 1–1 ACC) overcame a four-point halftime deficit to end a four-game losing streak against the Cavaliers (2–1, 0-1) with a 59–39 victory before a packed Kenan Stadium. That was the highest point output by UNC against Virginia since 1936.

It helps that, for the second time in program history, UNC had a player rush for 150 yards (Tennessee transfer running back Ty Chandler ran for two touchdowns and a career-high 198 yards), a player collect 150 reception yards (wide receiver Josh Downs with 203 yards and two touchdowns) and a quarterback throw for 200 yards (Howell with 307 on 14 of 21 passing for five TD passes) in the same game.

That also happened last season against Miami. Yes, the running game does have life after the departures of Javonte Williams and Michael Carter.

UNC collected more than 600 total yards (699) for the sixth time in Coach Mack Brown’s three seasons.

A career-high 554 passing yards for Armstrong weren’t enough. The total was the highest against UNC in program history. The big difference? While UNC rushed for 392 yards, the Cavaliers only had 21.

“It just comes with stopping the run. That’s what we preached all week,” UNC linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel said.

UNC had three sacks and Virginia only had one and has five takeaways this season after getting only 11 all of last season.

“Two of the best quarterbacks in the country,” Brown said. “I said earlier today that these two guys were going to put on a show tonight and they did.”

The catalysts, as always, were Howell and Downs as Howell passed N.C. State’s Russell Wilson for the sixth-most touchdown passes in ACC history with 77.

“Josh is unbelievable,” Howell said. “It was only a matter of time. All I try to do is try to give him the ball as much as possible. He makes plays. I know he’s always open.”

It was the third time in Howell’s career he has thrown at least four touchdown passes. He ran for more than 100 yards for the second consecutive game, collecting a career-high 112.

“He had one of the best games I’ve ever seen with his ability to run,” Brown said.

Three UNC offensive-line regulars — center Brian Anderson, left guard Joshua Ezeudu and right tackle Jordan Tucker — didn’t start because of injuries on a line that had plenty of issues in the first two weeks.

“It just suddenly clicked that we can do this,” right offensive guard Marcus McKethan said. “And we all started performing on all cylinders.”

That patchwork offensive line didn’t slow UNC as the Tar Heels scored touchdowns on three of their first eight plays, driving 82 yards on the first two drives to produce Howell to Downs touchdown passes.

“I think Ty and the offensive line probably got tired of hearing that they weren’t tough,” Brown said. “They got tired of hearing that they weren’t good and did a great job protecting Sam tonight as well as running the football.”

The first drive started with an 11-yard run from Howell and ended with Howell connecting with Downs at the Virginia 48 on a 55-yard scoring play. It was Downs’ longest catch of the season.

Desmond Evans recovered a fumbled Virginia exchange on the Cavaliers’ next drive at the UNC 18. This time, Downs made a terrific diving catch in the back of the end zone for a 37-yard scoring play.

Virginia finally scored on a 1-yard touchdown run by Wayne Taulapapa. But UNC quickly got that back on the first play of the next drive when Howell hit Khafre Brown on a crossing pattern for a 75-yard touchdown pass, making it was 21–7 with 2:16 left in the first quarter.

Grayson Atkins’ 36-yard field goal on a on a drive that lasted 2:41, which matched the combined time the first three drives took, made it 24–7.

“We were scoring so fast that it was wearing out defense out,” Brown said.

Virginia trimmed the lead to 24–21 with two consecutive touchdown drives.

Dontayvion Wicks made a great diving catch at the goal line on a 40-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Brennan Armstrong. A promising UNC drive ended when Fentrell Cypress III intercepted a Howell pass in the end zone. He returned it 64 yards and Armstrong connected with Jelani Woods on a 1-yard TD pass with 2:54 left in the first half.

UNC defensive back Tony Grimes, who was called for pass interference in the end zone that led to that short TD pass, was beat on a 21-yard Armstrong to Billy Kemp TD pass. That score with six seconds left gave the Cavaliers a 28–24 halftime lead.   

“I wasn’t really worried,” Downs said of trailing at halftime. “I knew were going to come out and they couldn’t really mess with us. Their defense couldn’t mess with our offense and I knew our defense was going to adjust.”

Carolina quickly retook the lead with a 60-yard run by Ty Chandler leading to a 5-yard touchdown pass from Howell to tight end Garrett Walston to open the second half. Caleb Hood’s first career touchdown, on a 5-yard run, put the Heels up 38–28 with 7:26 left in the third quarter.

A 34-yard field goal by Virginia’s Justin Duenkel cut the lead to seven, but Chandler came back with a 5-yard touchdown run to shove the lead back to 14.

After an interception by UNC safety Ja’Qurious Conley late in the third quarter, the Heels drove 70 yards in nine plays to net a 3-yard touchdown pass from Howell to Kamari Morales with 12:13 left.

Virginia added a 9-yard TD pass from Armstrong to Kemp before Chandler’s 7-yard touchdown run.

The Tar Heels head to Atlanta next Saturday for a 7:30 p.m. game against Georgia Tech in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the home of the Atlanta Falcons. The Yellow Jackets (1–2, 0-1) gave Clemson a good game Saturday in a 14–8 loss.

No. 21 UNC 59, Virginia 39

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A 34-yard field goal by Virginia’s Justin Duenkel cut the lead to seven, but Chandler came back with a 5-yard touchdown run to shove the lead back to 14.

After an interception by UNC safety Ja’Qurious Conley late in the third quarter, the Heels drove 70 yards in nine plays to net a 3-yard touchdown pass from Howell to Kamari Morales with 12:13 left.

Virginia added a 9-yard TD pass from Armstrong to Kemp before Chandler’s 7-yard touchdown run.

The Tar Heels head to Atlanta next Saturday for a 7:30 p.m. game against Georgia Tech in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the home of the Atlanta Falcons.

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