By R.L. Bynum
A horrible Carolina start against a bad Duke team had Tar Heels fans shaking their heads and wondering what happened to a team with so much potential.
Two big scoring plays — a long touchdown pass and a fumble return for a score — turned those shakes into nods. With the best defensive effort of the season, UNC rolled to a 38–7 feel-good win the Tar Heels needed on a beautiful day at Kenan Stadium.
It was Coach Mack Brown’s 11th consecutive victory over Duke.
“We played our best defense of the year, and maybe since we’ve been here,” Brown said. “Really proud of those guys.”
Considering the opponent was the Blue Devils (3–2, 0–1 ACC), with wins over weak competition, and an uneven second half, though, Carolina (3–2, 2–2) still has a long way to go to become the team many expected coming into the season.
“There were a lot of great things but we still have a lot we can correct,” Brown said. “It’s easier to correct them and you can be harder on them after a win than after a loss.”
The offensive line still is a work in progress and the team’s biggest weakness. But the offense did enough to help the Tar Heels keep the Victory Bell Carolina blue for a third consecutive season.
“Offensively, it was a frustrating day in some ways and we still scored 30-some points,” Brown said. “We’ve had injuries and we’re still trying to get somebody well at center. We even played Kaden Baker in there today and he hadn’t played at center in high school or college.”
Protection issues continued to force quarterback Howell to make quick decisions and inaccurate throws at times as UNC rotated three players at center looking for a good combination.
UNC career total offensive yards leaders
Marquise Williams 10,423
Darian Durant 9,630
Sam Howell 9,394
T.J. Yates 9,044
“Neither of our centers has been healthy,” Brown said of Brian Anderson and Quiron Johnson. “It’s been really, really difficult and we’re not in position now to have a third one. So, this week, instead of coming in here every weekend and talking about injuries and using this excuse, let’s see if there’s anybody else that can do it. So, we had everybody on the offensive line take snaps [in practice].”
But Howell battled through it to finish 18 of 32 for 321 yards and three touchdowns despite getting sacked five times. He’s thrown at least three touchdown passes in 17 of 30 college games.
UNC career passing yards leaders
T.J. Yates 9,377
Darian Durant 8,755
Sam Howell 8,721
Four consecutive games of at least 300 passing yards is the longest streak of his career. Howell has the longest active streak of games with at least one touchdown pass in the country with 30.
“When we have bad plays, it’s usually 10 guys doing their job and one guy not and that’s leading to the inconsistency we’re seeing,” Howell said. “So, we really just have got to be locked down and everyone’s got to do their job.”
Ty Chandler had a big game with two touchdowns and 137 total yards, which was a boost. But the offense still is not close to the level the Tar Heels reached last season.
“It has been so easy for us offensively for two years that we’ve got to have more patience now because we’re not the same offensive team we were,” Brown said. “We’ve got to continue to get better.”
Carolina’s defense got five sacks and junior safety Cam’Ron Kelly led the way with four tackles, three assists and a huge interception.
“We’re getting better on defense and young guys keep playing and playing,” Brown said. “It was really hot out there today, so we had a lot of rotation on defense and a lot of young guys got to play.”
Seven points were the fewest UNC has allowed against Duke since the 19–6 victory in 2009, a win later vacated. Before that, the fewest was in a 38–0 victory in 1999.
Howell connected with Chandler in the final seconds of the first quarter to break UNC’s offense out of its funk on a 75-yard scoring play. Chandler caught a pass 15 yards down field and raced up the right sideline, with the help of a Josh Downs block, to give the Tar Heels a 7–0 lead.
UNC made it 14–0 when Kevin Hester forced Duke quarterback Gunnar Holmberg to fumble and Trey Morrison returned it 63 yards for a touchdown. It was UNC’s first fumble return for a score since Malik Carney did it against Georgia Tech in 2018.
Chandler’s 18-yard run gave UNC a boost on the next drive. Then, he had a nice block on a 32-yard run by Howell. Howell connected with Kamari Morales on a 2-yard scoring play and the Heels were up 21–0 with 6:03 left in the first half to end a 7-play, 67-yard drive.
A 28-yard Grayson Atkins field goal with 1:24 left gave Carolina a 24–0 halftime lead.
On the first play of the second half, Holmberg connected with Jalon Calhoun on an 80-yard touchdown pass to finally break through for Duke, but UNC’s defense came through on the next two drives.
Kelly intercepted Holmberg to stop one drive.
“We talked about that formation all week,” Kelly said. “When he tried to go for it, I went up for it, tipped it and just made the play.”
Tomari Fox and Myles Murphy combined to tackle Jordan Moore on a wildcat play on fourth down on the other.
“I loved the momentum change with the fourth-and-two. That was a great play by our defense,” Brown said.
Chandler put the game away with 10:51 left on a 14-yard touchdown run to make it 31–7.
Downs made a terrific catch with a defender on him in the fourth quarter on a short pass and dashed down the left sideline on a 64-yard scoring play to shove the lead to 38–7.
“Sam threw me a good ball and then I looked upfield and, with Garrett Walston and Antoine Green leading me blocking, all I had to do was run,” Downs said.
Carolina is back at Kenan Stadium for the second of three consecutive home games next Saturday afternoon, facing Florida State at 3:30 in a game that will air on ESPN. The host Seminoles (1–3, 1–2) beat Syracuse 33–30 on Saturday for their first win of the season.
UNC 38, Duke 7
Photo via @UNCFootball