By R.L. Bynum
CHAPEL HILL — Just when it looked like Carolina might roll past Miami for the second consecutive season, the Hurricanes stormed back from an 18-point deficit to test the Tar Heels’ resiliency.
UNC (4–3, 3–3 ACC) hasn’t responded well to such challenges this season but pushed back after its lead had been cut to three and pulled out a 45–42 victory Saturday over the Hurricanes (2–4, 0–2) at Kenan Stadium.
“We’d like to have them learn how to overcome adversity, which our guys did tonight,” said UNC coach Mack Brown, who credited the fans for making a big difference. “Time and time again, we had a chance to put it away and we did. We won the game and that’s important.”
Miami went 97 yards in 12 plays to cut UNC’s lead to three with 3:08 left on a 4-yard TD run by Knighton and a two-point conversion pass to Charleston Rambo.
It took an interception by UNC linebacker Cedric Gray, his second interception of the game, with six seconds left to put it away, after linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel broke up the pass, to preserve the victory.
“That thing stayed in the air for about an hour and a half,” Brown said of the pass. “The most important thing that I’m most excited about is that we found a way to win.”
Before that play, it looked like the game was headed to overtime at the least, and possibly for a game-winning Miami touchdown drive.
“I think that last play of the game just shows how hard we played the whole game,” said Gemmel, who had a game-high nine tackles. “The guys are never going to stop fighting.”
Gray became the first Tar Heel with two interceptions in a game since Myles Wolfolk did it in the 2019 opener against South Carolina.
“Honestly, to be real with you, I was in the right place at the right time,” Gray said of the game-winning interception. “I just got close to the ball and grabbed it and it fell right into my hand. I mean, that’s really what happened there. It just happened so fast. You’re screaming and everybody’s all over you.
“It’s a little nervous playing in those types of games but, honestly, it’s fun,” Gray said.
Costly penalties, a damaging interception and porous defense at times in the second half didn’t make the victory easy. But the Tar Heels earned some positives to take with them into their first weekend off this season.
“I thought the offense played really well tonight. They did some great things,” said Brown, who is 3–0 against Miami. “But I didn’t like the way we handled the last two series.”
Quarterback Sam Howell more than made up for the interception. He ran for 98 yards and two touchdowns and was 17 for 26 passing for 154 yards and two touchdowns to throw for multiple touchdowns for the 27th time in 32 college games.
UNC total offense yards
Marquise Williams 10,423
Sam Howell 9,957
Darian Durant 9,630
T.J. Yates 9,044
“I just try to run as hard as I can and whatever happens, happens. I’d like to slide to just protect myself depending on the moment,” Howell said.
His fourth-quarter touchdown run meant that he is responsible for 99 career touchdowns, tying Marquise Williams’ school record.
UNC passing yards
T.J Yates 9,377
Sam Howell 9,078
Darian Durant 8,755
“He’s so hard to bring down,” said Brown, who implores Howell to slide. “A couple of times, he just ran through arms and twisted and went into score. So, that’s a new problem that people have and I think that will help with the pass rush.”
Howell’s most reliable target continued to be Josh Downs, who had a career-high reception total by halftime and finished with 11 of UNC’s 17 receptions for 96 yards and one touchdown.
Howell had help in the rushing department this time as Ty Chandler ran for 97 yards and two touchdowns.
Chandler broke through the left side of the line and dashed 51 yards down the left sideline for a touchdown to give the Tar Heels a quick 7–0 lead just 2:03 into the game.
“I’m glad we were able to finish. The defense did a great job,” Chandler said, saying that working on the little things and correcting the mistakes made the difference in the running game. “Our O-line did a great job. They come to work every day. So proud of those guys.”
Miami got that TD back a little over a minute later when Howell tried to throw a swing pass to Chandler. Canes defensive end Jahfari Harvey snagged his first career interception after avoiding Jordan Tucker’s block and returned it 33 yards for the score.
Downs kept the offensive momentum going by catching a short pass from Howell and sprinting 45 yards for a touchdown. He has a scoring reception in eight consecutive games starting with the Orange Bowl.
That tied Javonte Williams (2020) and Giovani Bernard (2012) for the second-longest touchdown streak in program history, only behind Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice’s nine-game streak in the 1947 and 1948 seasons.
UNC held Miami to a 44-yard Andy Borregales field goal despite 40 penalty yards on the next drive, with the help of a huge Tomon Fox third-down sack, the 24th of his career. That tied him with Marcus Jones and Quinton Coples for third in school history.
Redshirt freshman John Copenhaver (top photo) made it 21–10 when he caught a 2-yard touchdown pass from Howell with 10:46 left in the first half to end a 13 play, 81-yard drive.
Gray intercepted a pass that Tony Grimes tipped and returned it 21 yards to set up a 4-yard Chandler touchdown run.
Miami put together another penalty-aided scoring drive that produced a 2-yard Jaylan Knighton touchdown run. UNC’s Tony Grimes was called for pass interference twice on that drive, including on one play in the end zone.
Another UNC interception, this one from safety Cam’Ron Kelly in the final minute of the first half, set up a 48-yard Grayson Atkins field goal as time expired to make it 31–17 at halftime.
“I jumped in front of it and picked it off. He put some heat behind it and I almost dropped,” Kelly said of his second career interception.
Miami took the second-half kickoff and drove 11 plays and 175 yards for a Cody Brown 4-yard touchdown run. That came after a fourth-and-10 conversion and a pass interference call on UNC cornerback Kyler McMichael.
Howell hit Antoine Green on a 41-yard pass play, then ran 30 yards for a touchdown, pinballing off defenders to push UNC’s lead to 38–24.
Miami added a 42-yard Borregales field goal with 5:56 left in the third quarter. After UNC went 3-and-out, Knighton caught a swing pass from quarterback Tyler Van Dyke, juked Kyler McMichael and went 60 yards for a touchdown to trim UNC’s lead to 38–34.
After another Carolina 3-and-out, UNC stopped Miami when safety Giovanni Biggers broke up a pass attempt on fourth-and-three. UNC then drove 85 yards for a touchdown with Howell going the last 11 yards on another amazing effort to make it 45–34 with 9:22 left.
Carolina moved to 12–11 all-time against Miami and 7–3 at home against the Canes and have won three consecutive games in the series.
UNC gets its first weekend off of the season before visiting Notre Dame for a 7:30 p.m. game Oct. 30 on NBC. The Irish (5–1) were off this weekend and play host to Southern Cal at 7:30 p.m. next Saturday.
UNC 45, Miami 42
Photo via @UNCFootball