By R.L. Bynum
CHAPEL HILL — Fans got a glimpse of what Carolina football will be like next season without Sam Howell. They liked what they saw.
With the record-breaking junior quarterback out of uniform while nursing an upper-body injury, sophomore Jacolby Criswell and freshman Drake Maye got the chance to show what they could do during a 34–14 victory Saturday over Wofford to earn bowl eligibility.
“This morning, they told me that Sam was not going to play,” said Coach Mack Brown, who said he considered whether he might play Howell for one series. “But that would not have been smart if somebody had hit him because he feels well and ready to go on Friday.”
After Howell’s appearance at pregame senior-day ceremonies at Kenan Stadium, he joined everybody in watching the candidates to replace him next season while anticipating Friday’s game at N.C. State.
It helped both QBs that UNC (6–5) has solid running threats. In the first quarter, Ty Chandler became the 31st player in program history to run for 1,000 yards in a season and finished with 78 yards on 10 carries on a short day for him.
Senior British Brooks ran for 89 yards and two touchdowns, to give him three for his career, and Caleb Hood returned for the first time since the Georgia Tech game.
Carolina’s two quarterbacks have split second-team reps all season in practice and that equity continued Saturday with Criswell playing the first half and Maye in the second half, although Maye played with more reserves. Each led Carolina to touchdowns on their first drives, with both showing the ability to pass on the run and also be a threat to gain big yards with rushes.
“We saw some really good things out of them,” said Brown, who didn’t see any separation between the two. “I’ll look at that tomorrow. Hopefully, we won’t need them to play a crucial role in the next two games.”
Wide receiver Josh Downs had eight catches for 89 yards and is second all-time in receiving yards and receptions in a single season in program history.
Carolina single-season receiving yard leaders
1. Hakeem Nicks, 2008 — 1,222
2. Josh Downs, 2021 — 1,198
2. Dwight Jones, 2011 — 1,196
4. Ryan Switzer, 2016 — 1,112
5. Dyami Brown, 2020 — 1,099
6. Dyami Brown, 2019 — 1,034
7. Dazz Newsome, 2019 — 1,018
Carolina single-season reception leaders
1. Ryan Switzer, 2016 — 96
2. Josh Downs, 2021 — 90
3. Dwight Jones, 2011 — 85
4. Hakeem Nicks, 2007 — 74
Criswell, 6–0¼, 220 pounds, looked solid with the mostly short-passing game plan. He overthrew an open receiver in the first quarter and overshot receivers on three deep passes in the second quarter. But, with a strong arm, Criswell showed the ability to improvise and make plays.
“My first start, a little rusty, but for the most, I’m happy with how the guys performed,” said Criswell, who found out he would start during the Thursday walkthrough. “I missed some throws here or there, which I would take back 100%.”
Before Saturday, Criswell had completed 5 of 6 passes in his career for 70 yards and one touchdown, and had 11 carries for 27 yards in 10 games, mostly at the end of blowout games. Against Wofford, he was 11 of 19 for 125 yards, had a 113.2 passer rating and rushed five times for 66 yards and a touchdown.
Saturday was Maye’s college debut and his first action since his 2019 junior season in high school but he didn’t look rusty. Maye, 6–5, 220 pounds, finished 7 of 9 passing for 89 yards and one touchdown and ran four times for 38 yards. Maye’s passer rating was 197.5.
Chandler boosted Criswell’s game-opening, 10-play, 82-yard opening drive with 44 rushing yards. Criswell connected on three short passes for 21 yards and scored on a 1-yard touchdown run. After his second drive stalled, Grayson Atkins booted a 27-yard field goal.
“We knew who I was supposed to read and if they did it, I would keep the ball,” Criswell said of his runs. “There’s not much to it. I mean they did things that we were looking forward to and then ended up happening. And then when it came to me running, we ended up doing we’re supposed to be doing as a full offense.”
Wofford converted on fourth down, and a personal-foul penalty against UNC aided a 71-yard, 12-play drive after becoming the fourth Carolina opponent this season to go scoreless in the first quarter. That produced a 3-yard touchdown run by backup quarterback Kyle Pinnix with 6:22 left in the first half and trimmed UNC’s lead to 10–7.
Brooks quickly responded, taking the first carry of his senior day 38 yards down the right sideline for a touchdown.
“I thought the offensive line did a good job but backs have to make yards after contact. That’s where you evaluate your worth. And both of those guys today made a lot of yards after contact,” Brown said of Chandler and Brooks.
For a career where Brooks didn’t get much playing time other than special teams, he made his final home game memorable.
“Shout out to Mack Brown for just believing in me throughout the whole process since he’s been here,” Brooks said. “I couldn’t be more grateful to be on this team.”
Atkins’ 34-yard field goal ended the first half to give UNC a 20–7 halftime lead.
Carolina cornerback Kyler McMichael, a senior, snagged a tipped pass for an interception to end the first drive of the second half.
“I was so grateful,” McMichael said of the intercepiton. “This meant so much because I haven’t had an interception in a really long time.”
Maye’s first drive, which went 55 yards on five plays, netted a 14-yard Brooks touchdown run. Maye connected on both passes for 15 yards on the drive.
“When we tell him at halftime you’re going in, that’s got to be a little anxious for a true freshman,” Brown said of Maye. “The first time he walks out on the field, he took us the length of the field and scored immediately and made a couple of throws.”
Maye passed to Kamari Morales on a 4-yard touchdown run to end a 14-play, 84-yard, 7:05 third-quarter drive.
“I just wanted to go out there and make the most of the possessions and just go out there and have fun,” Maye said. “That was my first game out there. I haven’t got hit since my high school days about two years ago, so it just felt good to be out there.”
Maye said that he thought he did OK, saying he is always hard on himself.
“After that first hit, I think maybe on a quarterback draw, it felt good,” Maye said. “Just kind of eager to keep going and try to play fast.”
Ryan Ingram got a 19-yard touchdown run for Wofford with 9:04 left in the first half. The Terriers finished 1–10 with 10 consecutive defeat.
UNC running back D.J. Jones (lower-body injury) and nickelback Ja’Qurious Conley (left-leg injury) both got hurt in the first half and didn’t return. Linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel limped off after the third-quarter interception and didn’t return. Brown said Gemmel is fine, though.
Carolina finishes the regular season at 7 p.m. Friday night at N.C. State (7–3, 4–2 ACC), which played at home against Syracuse late Saturday afternoon.
UNC 34, Wofford 14
Photo via @UNCFootball