By R.L. Bynum
CHARLOTTE — A North Carolina season that began with so much anticipation and lofty expectations ended with yet another disappointment and a losing season that Tar Heels fans couldn’t have imagined last summer.
As with many games this season, defensive woes were the big culprit Thursday as the Tar Heels finished 6–7 after a 38–21 loss to South Carolina in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl at Bank of America Stadium.
“My kids were really disappointed,” UNC coach Mack Brown said. “They understood that they didn’t play well.”
If that was quarterback Sam Howell’s last game as a Tar Heel, like on many Saturdays this season, he deserved much better. The offensive line didn’t protect him well most of the day, but he still finished 12 of 20 for 205 yards and one touchdown despite being sacked four times.
“I still have some decisions to make,” said Howell, adding that his decision-making process will involve a lot of prayer. “If this is my last game, I’m just forever grateful for everything. I’m blessed to be here at Carolina. I’m so appreciative of all the help I’ve had along the way.”
Howell, who gave way to Drake Maye for the last possession, was the last UNC player to walk off the field after the game.
“Yeah, I was just trying to take everything in,” Howell said of his lonely walk off the field.
For the third time in four games, UNC fell behind early after trailing 17–0 at Pittsburgh and 14–0 at N.C. State. Unlike in those games, North Carolina never led.
The Tar Heels trailed South Carolina by 11 points in the fourth quarter in Howell’s college debut in the same stadium just as they were Thursday. He engineered a comeback in 2019 but couldn’t pull it off this time.
“I think it’s all about a mindset coming out. [You have to] find some way to find an edge,” Howel said. “Just come out ready to compete with that killer mindset. We found ourselves with some slow starts a lot of times this year. It’s hard to recover from those and we had another slow one today, which can’t happen if you expect to win the game.”
The defense’s performance against a South Carolina team without its best quarterback and best running back and with a wide receiver getting numerous snaps at QB was head-scratching. But, given some of the bad efforts this season, it wasn’t a complete surprise.
South Carolina rolled up a season-high 543 total yards, easily topping the 459 it gained against Florida.
“The most disappointing thing is that they rush for 301 yards and we rush for 205,” Brown said. “You’re not gonna win football games if that’s the case. Secondly, you’ve got to make third downs and stay on the field. They were getting seven, eight yards on first downs.”
When UNC punted down by 14 points with 5:52 left, it was obvious that, with the way the Tar Heels defense was playing, a comeback wasn’t going to happen.
The Tar Heels became only the second team since 1978 to post a losing record as at least 10-point favorites during a season at 2–3, the same mark Houston put up in 1991.
The game was full of missed tackles and a few cases of blown coverages. The Gamecocks scored their most points against a Power 5 team all season (the previous high was 28 in a loss at Missouri).
“We’ll dissect every defensive [play] and every offensive play and see if there’s some structure there that we should have done differently or better, see if there are any common denominators,” Brown said. “And, then, you look at personnel and see if you’re putting somebody out there that’s not playing well, that’s not being productive. And if that’s the case, we find something else for them to do.”
There were positives in the game, from Josh Downs (three catches for 62 yards) becoming the fourth player in ACC history to catch 100 passes in a season (joining Duke’s Jamison Crowder in 2013, Clemson’s Sammy Watkins in 2013 and Syracuse’s Steve Ishmael in 2017) and Antoine Green (four catches for 73 yards) making some terrific catches and showing his potential.
It took only 7:15 into the game for South Carolina to take a 15–0 lead on a pair of three-play drives that produced touchdowns receptions of 69 and 66 yards by tight end Jaheim Bell.
“The first one was from the Wildcat and the second one was a busted coverage,” Brown said. “We didn’t play consistently well throughout the day on defense.”
The Gamecocks went 93 yards on the first drive and 78 yards on the second. Kai Kroeger passed to Nick Muse for the two-point conversion after the second score. Parker White’s 30-yard field goal with 27 seconds left in the first quarter, after a nine-play drive, pushed the Gamecocks’ lead to 18–0.
“I think we got down early, so we got away from running the ball,” Howell said. “We knew how South Carolina plays offense where they slow the game down and try to run the clock. We knew we couldn’t sit there down three touchdowns and run the ball.”
British Brooks finally gave UNC a positive play on a 63-yard touchdown run, the longest touchdown run in both the history of this bowl game and Carolina bowl history, with 13:11 left in the first half.
That topped Amos Lawrence’s 59-yard touchdown run against Texas in the 1980 Bluebonnet Bowl. The previous longest run in the Charlotte bowl was a 61-yarder by Lynn Bowden Jr. for Kentucky in 2019. The score came after Howell converted on a fourth-and-one run.
Tomon Fox had a big third-down sack on South Carolina’s next possession to set up another UNC scoring drive.
“They’re very physical up front; they have a good O line,” Fox said. “They get to second-level defenders very well. I think that was the biggest thing, getting to the second-level guys and having to make the DBs make some open tackles.”
Downs’ nice over-the-shoulder catch down the right sideline for 34 yards and Green’s 23-yard reception set up Grayson Atkins’ 40-yard field goal with 5:44 left in the first half to make it 18–10.
Juju McDowell responded with a 35-yard touchdown run down the left side on a six-play drive with 2:27 left in the first half.
UNC had to settle for a 36-yard Atkins field goal with 44 seconds left in the first half after a false start on a fourth-and-one stalled a promising drive at the South Carolina 19. That cut the Tar Heels’ halftime deficit to 25–13.
The Gamecocks went 75 yards on nine plays in the opening drive of the second half, with Kevin Harris’ one-yard touchdown run making it 32–13.
Howell hit a wide-open Garrett Walston on a double-reverse flea-flicker for a 37-yard touchdown play with 7:24 left in the third quarter. Ty Chandler ran in the two-point conversion to make it 32–21.
Parker added field goals of 22 and 33 yards in the fourth quarter.
South Carolina 38, UNC 21
Photo via @UNCFootball