By R.L. Bynum
Safety Cam’Ron Kelly and lineman Raymond Vohasek came to the rescue for a struggling Carolina defense that finally gave the Tar Heels’ potent offense a chance at the end.
UNC took advantage and the Tar Heels rallied against Wake Forest for the second consecutive season.
A year after erasing a 21-point deficit, UNC came back from 17 points down in the third quarter to win a shootout 58–55 Saturday at Kenan Stadium, thanks to huge games from quarterback Sam Howell and running back Ty Chandler.
“Like last year’s game, this thing was a little bit out of hand,” said Coach Mack Brown, referring to the deficits that UNC has faced against Wake Forest in consecutive seasons. “They kept competing.”
The Tar Heels managed to end No. 10 Wake Forest’s unbeaten run despite losing defensive leader Jeremiah Gemmel to a first-half targeting call.
Kelly intercepted Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman for a second time early in the fourth quarter to set up a 21-yard Chandler touchdown run to tie the game with 10:29 left.
“We just played hard, we played physical and our effort was there,” said Kelly, who became the first Tar Heel with four interceptions in a season since M.J. Stewart did it in 2015. “I think everybody stepped up on the defensive end and just thankful for the offense turning it up.”
Vohasek batted down a Hartman pass on a fourth-and-two on the Deacs’ next drive, leading to Grayson Atkins’ third field goal of the game, a 25-yard boot with 2:12 left.
After a fourth-and-10 pass attempt by Hartman fell harmlessly to the turf, Chandler’s 50-yard touchdown run appeared put the game away.
“This is what we work for every week and this is why the guys in the running back room push me every week,” Chandler said. “I’ve got to give credit to the offensive line.”
Hartman made it interesting with a 14-yard touchdown pass to Jaquarii Roberson with 37 seconds left but a Wake Forest onside kick attempt went out of bounds.
“The defensive staff changed up a few things in the second half,” said Brown, who was thankful that 150 recruits at the game saw a show. “We got a stop or two and we got a couple of turnovers and that really made the difference in the ballgame.”
The Tar Heels have given up at least 42 points for three consecutive games for the first time since Brown’s first team in 1988 (47 to Auburn, 42 to Wake Forest and 48 to N.C. State) went 1–10 but made enough big plays to overcome it all.
The most points Carolina has allowed in a win? That would be the 53 Wake Forest scored last season and the 55 the Deacs scored Saturday. The Deacons’ 615 total yards are the most against UNC this season.
Carolina (5–4) now needs only one more win in its last three games to be bowl-eligible, and College Football Playoff dreams for the 9–1 Demon Deacons are over. Wake Forest still is very much alive for making the ACC championship game since this was a non-conference matchup.
“Our whole team is getting better. I think what happened early probably was Sam and those five great players that left last year after carrying us through two years,” said Brown, who is 23–1 in his last 24 games against in-state ACC opponents. “We weren’t as good as a team that had the great players and pulled us out of trouble. And now what we’re doing is going back to being a team that’s got to grow up and have a program.”
Howell, as usual, did plenty and, with another impressive game from Chandler, it was just enough to win. Carolina converted on all seven red-zone opportunities and produced 546 total yards. It’s the fourth time this season that UNC has gained more than 500 total yards in a game.
“It’s just a big momentum game for us moving forward,” Howell said. “I’m just trying to finish the season out right here. I’m just happy for our team. We had a really good week of preparation.”
Howell was 16 of 26 passing for 216 yards and a touchdown and ran for 104 yards and two touchdowns to break Marquise Williams’ school total offense record of 10,423 yards with 10,515 yards.
“It’s just an awesome thing to accomplish,” Howell said of the record.
UNC total offense yards
Sam Howell 10,515
Marquise Williams 10,423
Darian Durant 9,630
T.J. Yates 9,044
Chandler ran for a career-high 213 yards and became the first UNC player to rush for four touchdowns in a game since Leon Johnson did it against Texas-El Paso in 1993 on 106 rushing yards.
“I’m just happy for him,” Howell said of Chandler. “He’s been compared to the guys we had last year and it doesn’t bother him. We saw one of the best performances out of a running back in school history today.”
Chandler praised Howell and said that their chemistry just keeps getting better.
“I feel like I have developed a great relationship with Sam, just knowing the offense and the plays and just getting more comfortable,” Chandler said. “Great quarterback. Great leader. He keeps us all on the same page and keeps us in tune, so I’m not surprised to see [him lead the comeback.]”
Brown said that the offensive line has improved and that the unit should not have received so much blame for the struggles on offense earlier this season.
“It’s a lot better because they’re more confident and they’re healthy,” Brown said. “I’m really proud of them and I think it’s huge to have both centers healthy.”
Hartman had his typical good game, going 25 of 51 for 398 yards and five touchdowns and running for two scores, but his two interceptions were costly for the Deacons. Hartman became the first player to account for seven touchdowns against Carolina in school history. Seven have accounted for six, the last being Louisville’s Lamar Jackson in 2017.
“We started getting more pressure on the quarterback in the second half,” Brown said. “We did a good job of managing the run.”
Linebacker Cedric Gray led UNC with a career-high 12 tackles, exceeding his previous high of 11 against Florida State and Notre Dame.
Chandler fumbled on Carolina’s first play of the game, but the defense held Wake Forest to a 27-yard Nick Sciba field goal after a big Tomon Fox sack.
Howell quickly gave UNC the lead by running for 48 of the 79 yards on an 8-play drive that ended with his twisting, tackle-eluding 18-yard Howell scoring run.
After Deacs retook the lead on Hartman’s 6-yard touchdown run, Kelly stepped in front of the receiver for an interception to set up a quick touchdown drive. Howell connected with Chandler on a 30-yard pass play and, two plays later, Howell scored on a 12-yard touchdown run, his eighth scoring run of the season.
On the next play, after Gemmel was disqualified for targeting, Hartman connected on a 15-yard touchdown pass to Roberson as the Deacs retook the lead.
The good news for the Tar Heels’ defense is that cornerback Storm Duck played his second game of the season and first since facing Virginia on Sept. 18 and had five tackles.
“Storm Duck made a huge difference in the game,” Brown said. “To go out there and play the way he played was really, really special.”
A huge 15-yard Downs catch on a fourth-and-seven, his first reception of the game, set up a 1-yard TD run by Chandler to put UNC ahead 21–17 with 9:41 left in the first half.
Hartman threw 32 yards to A.T. Perry, who held off Kelly with one hand and caught the TD pass with the other. Late in the first half, he connected with Taylor Morin on a 37-yard scoring play with 1:07 left.
Atkins’ field goals of 31 yards as the first half ended and 23 yards with 12:24 left in the third quarter cut UNC’s deficit to 31–27. The second score came after wide receiver Justin Olson’s amazing, lunging catch on a 45-yard Howell pass.
Wake Forest started piling it on from there, with Hartman running 21 yards for touchdown then connecting with Perry on a 66-yard scoring play.
Howell connected with Antoine Green on a 29-yard touchdown pass to give him 34 consecutive games with a touchdown pass but Wake countered with a 42-yard Sciba field goal.
Chandler’s 12-yard scoring run sliced the Deacs’ lead to 48–41 with 11:22 left.
It’s a quick turnaround for UNC, which visits Pittsburgh at 7:30 Thursday (ESPN). The Panthers (7–2, 4–1) rolled to a 54–29 victory Saturday at Duke.