Howell gives UNC a different dimension on offense with his running threat, which he shows off in win at BC

By R.L. Bynum
@RL_Bynum

The feet on one Tar Heel are making a more significant impact on games than last season.

They would be the feet of Sam Howell, North Carolina’s sophomore quarterback, who couldn’t take his chances on running that much last season because of the Tar Heels’ depleted quarterback depth.

A stronger Howell is taking advantage of his chances to run, and that helped push No. 12 UNC to 2-0 with a 26–22 victory Saturday at Boston College. UNC held on after some costly mistakes made it closer.

“Definitely, when I see space, I want to take advantage of that,” Howell said. “I feel like a lot of teams don’t really account for me as a runner. So, there’s a lot of space out there. Whenever I can take advantage of the space they give me, I try to.” 

Trey Morrison helped put the game away when he returned an interception on a potential game-tying two-point conversion pass 99 yards to add two UNC points in the game’s final minute. 

“I was reading to the field side and I didn’t see anything come that way,” Morrison said. “I saw the quarterback go to the boundary. I saw the running back flare out, and I just saw the ball in the air, and I went to go get it.” 

BC quarterback Phil Jurkovec had just connected with C.J. Lewis on a 2-yard touchdown pass with 45 seconds left to pull within two points. Chazz Surratt sealed the win by recovering the ensuing onside kick.

After rushing for only 35 yards last season, Howell had five runs of six yards or more, including a 20-yard play, against BC. All but one of those were on third-down scrambles.

But it’s the threat of the run that gives opposing defenses something else to think about that is giving the Tar Heels’ offense another dimension. 

Opponents can’t just worry about covering UNC’s talented receivers. They have to deal with the possibility that Howell will make a run for it, as well as his ability to extend plays. As if trying to stop Javonte Williams and Michael Carter wasn’t enough to defend on the ground.

Carter ran for 121 yards and Williams added 57 and one touchdown as Carolina outrushed BC 176–40.

“I was probably more impressed with Sam making plays with his feet than ever before,” UNC coach Mack Brown said. “He did some of that in the bowl game, but he made some huge plays tonight with his feet that’s really going to help us.” 

There was no better example than late in the first half when he was scrambling to make a play. While straddling the line of scrimmage, he threw a short pass right in stride to Williams on a 41-yard scoring play.

“When I saw him scramble, I just tried to get open,” Williams said. “When I caught it, I was wide open.”

There were times when Howell’s desire to extend plays got him into trouble and he kept the ball for too long when he’d have been better advised to throw the ball away or take a sack. In one case early in the second half, Williams bailed him out by recovering Howell’s fumble after being pressured.

Howell threw two touchdown passes to give him 41 in only 15 games, already tied for the fifth-most career TD passes in Carolina program history with Mitch Trubisky (2014–16). Fourth on the list with 58 in 45 games over four seasons is T.J. Yates (2007–10).

Howell finished 14 of 26 for 225 yards and one interception for a 144.2 passer rating.

It was another big game for UNC’s defense, which has given up 28 points through two games, the fewest against FBS teams since allowing 27 in 2009 to Connecticut and East Carolina. Surratt led the way with eight tackles (all solo) and one sack in addition to breaking up a pass and hurrying the quarterback once. Don Chapman added seven tackles (also solo).

UNC scored on both first-quarter drives.

Howell’s 24-yard touchdown pass to Khafre Brown completed a 12-play, 83-yard, 4:13 drive on UNC’s first possession to put the Tar Heels ahead 7-0 with 7:35 left in the first quarter. The Tar Heels went 3-of-3 on third downs in that drive.

UNC was efficient again with a 6-play, 48-yard, 2:24 drive that produced a 1-yard touchdown run by Williams with 1:21 left in the first quarter.

After Morrison’s big hit kept B.C.’s Hunter Long from making a catch, the Eagles settled for a 35-yard Aaron Boumerhi field goal with 3:46 left in the opening quarter. After another drop by Long early in the second quarter, Boumerhi booted a 27-yard field goal. He added a 30-yard field goal on the final first-half play to cut UNC’s lead to 21-16.

Morrison said that it appeared that Long was wary of another big hit after that crushing first-quarter blow led to him getting medical attention.

“I do feel that hit kind of did that,” Morrison said. “Every time he was running across the middle, he was looking. He was looking more.”

Cornerback Brandon Sebastian intercepted a deflected Howell pass to give BC the ball at the UNC 5. Three plays later, Jurkovec threw a 5-yard scoring pass to running back David Bailey to cut the Tar Heels’ lead 14-13 with 11:35 left in the first half.

Graduate transfer Grayson Atkins’ 35-yard field goal padded UNC’s lead with 2:32 left in the third quarter. He missed wide left on a 47-yard attempt with 5:46 remaining in the game that might have eliminated the last-minute drama.

“I knew it was gonna be a hard-fought game,” Brown said. “We had chances that we could have pulled away. Give them credit. We didn’t. They’ve got good players too; that’s why we play these games. It’s the team that plays the best that day. And today we were better than they were.”

Carolina returns home next Saturday for a noon game against Virginia Tech (2–0), which won 38–31 at Duke (0–4) on Saturday.

No. 12 North Carolina 26, Boston College 22

Pool photos by John Quackenbos/Boston College Athletics

Tar Heels in NFL: Trubisky benched in Bears win; big plays for Ebron, Boston

By R.L. Bynum
@RL_Bynum

Mitch Trubisky’s good start that helped the Chicago Bears get off to a 2–0 start took an unpleasant turn for the former Tar Heels quarterback Sunday against the winless Atlanta Falcons.

The good news for Trubisky is that the Bears moved to 3–0. The bad news is that he was benched in the third quarter and it was backup Nick Foles who rallied Chicago from a 16-point fourth-quarter deficit to a 30–26 victory.

Trubisky was 13 of 22 with a 2-yard touchdown pass to Jimmy Graham before Falcons cornerback Blidi Wrey-Wilson stepped in front of Graham for an interception. That interception nearly four minutes into the second half led Bears coach Matt Nagy to bring on Foles to end Trubisky’s day.

Foles got off to a slow start but finished 16 of 29 for 188 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. You have to figure that Foles will start next week against the Indianapolis Colts.

Nagy said wouldn’t answer after the game when asked who would start against the Colts: “We just want to enjoy the win tonight,” he said. At Nagy’s press conference on Monday, though, he named Foles the starter.

Here’s what Trubisky had to say after the game:

Trubisky showed his versatility earlier in the game with a 45-yard run, which was Chicago’s longest play of the game.

It was a better day for tight end Eric Ebron, who helped the Pittsburgh Steelers move to 3-0. He caught five of the seven passes thrown to him for 52 yards and a 10-yard touchdown reception. He also had a 17-yard reception.

The Carolina Panthers safety Tre Boston made a nice play to knock away a potential game-winning pass to Keenan Allen in the end zone to help preserve their 21–16 road victory over the Los Angeles Chargers.

How Tar Heels fared in the NFL in Week 3

Idle Tar Heels fall one spot in the AP poll to No. 12, thanks to big wins by Miami and UCF, return of Big Ten teams

By R.L. Bynum
@RL_Bynum

North Carolina’s season has been on a two-week holding pattern and it appears to have cost the Tar Heels in the Associated Press Top 25 poll. Carolina fell one spot, checking in at No. 12 in the new poll released Sunday afternoon.

Expect UNC to keep dropping even with wins in the coming weeks as more voters start to consider Big Ten and Pac-12 schools. In the preseason poll, Ohio State was No. 3, Penn State was No. 7, Oregon was No. 9 and Wisconsin was No. 12.

The Buckeyes returned to the poll at No. 6 and Penn State was back at No. 10, contributing to the Tar Heels’ drop. Also a factor was Miami jumping from No. 12 to No. 8 after blowing out Florida State 52–10 and Central Florida going from No. 13 to No. 11 winning 51–28 at East Carolina

Without the ability to impress Associated Press poll voters on the field, North Carolina’s only chance of moving up in the poll was to have teams above the Tar Heels lose and hope that teams just below them weren’t impressive.

Two teams lost ahead of the Tar Heels and fell behind them: Oklahoma (No. 3 last week but No. 18 this week after a 38–35 home loss to unranked Kansas State) and reigning College Football Playoff champion LSU (No. 6 last week but No. 20 this week after a 44–34 home loss to Mississippi State).

Two other teams that were ahead of Carolina in last week’s poll escaped upset bids: Texas (No. 8 last week but No. 9 this week after a 63–56 overtime win over Texas Tech) and Texas A&M (No. 10 last week but dropped to No. 13 this week after a 17–12 victory over unranked Vanderbilt).

Carolina won its only game of the season 31–6 at home on Sept. 12 against Syracuse. The Orange is 1-2 after winning at home 37–20 against Georgia Tech on Saturday.

The Tar Heels are scheduled to finally play again at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Boston College (2–0), which rallied at home Saturday to beat Texas State 24–21. The game will air on ABC.

AP Top 25

RANKTEAMPV RANKCONFERENCEPOINTS
1Clemson (2-0)1ACC1,542 (55)
2Alabama (1-0)2SEC1,473 (3)
3Florida (1-0)5SEC1,324
4Georgia (1-0)4SEC1,310
5Notre Dame (2-0)7IA Independents1,231
6Ohio State (0-0)Big Ten1,169 (4)
7Auburn (1-0)8SEC1,133
8Miami (3-0)12ACC1,045
9Texas (2-0)8Big 12862
10Penn State (0-0)Big Ten840
11UCF (2-0)13American Athletic743
12North Carolina (1-0)11ACC734
13Texas A&M (1-0)10SEC705
14Oregon (0-0)Pac-12651
15Cincinnati (2-0)14American Athletic646
16Mississippi State (1-0)SEC590
17Oklahoma State (2-0)15Big 12555
18Oklahoma (1-1)3Big 12535
19Wisconsin (0-0)Big Ten510
20LSU (0-1)6SEC401
21Tennessee (1-0)16SEC377
22Brigham Young (2-0)18IA Independents295
23Michigan (0-0)Big Ten277
24Pittsburgh (3-0)21ACC248
25Memphis (1-0)17American Athletic196

Others receiving votes: Virginia Tech 195, Louisiana-Lafayette 126, * Minnesota 110, * USC 104, Kansas State 60, SMU 37, Marshall 31, Baylor 22, * Iowa 16, * Utah 14, Virginia 12, Arkansas State 11, UAB 5, Washington 4, Kentucky 4, Louisville 4, Army 3.

* Big Ten or Pac-12 schools that didn’t appear in last week’s poll.

Pool photo by Robert Willett

UNC is one of a few college volleyball teams with every player wearing masks for matches

By R.L. Bynum
@RL_Bynum

If you watch a college volleyball match this fall, you’ll see something you are unlikely to see in any other sport — entire teams wearing masks during competition.

North Carolina is one of those teams. 

Since preseason practice started Aug. 1, Coach Joe Sagula’s team has worn masks for every practice. All of the measures seem to have been effective since no Tar Heels have tested positive for COVID-19.

As odd as it was to see every player wearing a surgical mask during a match, it didn’t seem to have any effect on their play as the Tar Heels split the first two matches of the season at Virginia Tech, winning 3–1 Thursday and losing 3–2 Friday.

Making it a bit more odd-looking was the contrast between the teams since every Hokies player decided not to wear a mask. Players on their bench wore masks.

Wanting his players to stay safe is one reason his players wear masks, but setting set an example for their fans was also important.

Joe Sagula

“There’s no reason why someone should not wear a mask because that’s just showing respect for everyone else and it’s our way of doing it and showing it and maybe being a little bit of a role model.“

“Absolutely. We think about that, said Sagula, in his 31st season as UNC’s coach. “Our team has said that if we can wear a mask in practice for two hours, in a hard-fought practice, then there’s no reason why someone else can’t put on a mask when they walk into a store. 

“There’s no reason why someone should not wear a mask because that’s just showing respect for everyone else and it’s our way of doing it and showing it and maybe being a little bit of a role model,” Sagula said. “If that’s what people get from that, great.”

Wearing masks at the start of practice was the decision of the coaching staff but Sagula wasn’t sure if the team could make it work. They decided to use disposable surgical masks after first trying out gaiters. Sagula said the gaiters didn’t work that well for volleyball.

“They said it was a little bit of a struggle early, but they were okay with it and the continuation of it came from the team,” said Sagula, whose team gets COVID-19 tests three times a week when there is a game. “They felt better about creating better safety and creating a statement of how important it is to wear a mask every day. So, once we did that we just said, ‘OK, we’re gonna do that.’ ”

During a match, the ACC only requires coaches, team support personnel, game personnel and referees to wear masks.

“It hasn’t hindered anyone. I can tell you that,” Sagula said.

The Tar Heels (1–1, 1–1 in the ACC) aren’t the only team in the league wearing masks. When Notre Dame played Louisville on Thursday and Friday, both teams wore masks. Virginia also is wearing masks for matches.

Notre Dame coach Mike Johnson told Sagula that the Irish players were adamant about wearing masks.

“They wanted to wear masks, and they wanted the opponents to wear masks,” Sagula said. “They were going to ask. I’ve kindly asked as well but it’s not required.” 

Already this season, a Clemson-Wake Forest match and an Appalachian State-Georgia Southern match have been postponed because of COVID-19 concerns.

UNC buys the surgical masks in packs of 100. Players wear a fresh mask every day and they change masks after particularly long rallies. Players changed masks during the first two matches.

“The biggest thing is the sweat,” Sagula said. “Also, I think it’s probably better for their face that they’re changing masks every now and then rather than having that sweat stay on their face. After long rallies [in practice], we take water breaks, we have them socially distance, but they can just take in some fresh air. They just lift the mask a little bit away from their face, they’re not taking it off. So we’re very respectful of that. We will tell them if they need time getting a breathing timeout, just let us know.”

There are other safety measures during this ACC volleyball season. Instead of postgame handshakes, there are postgame waves. Instead of the teams switching benches and sides as they normally do in volleyball between sets, the teams use the same benches and play on the same side of the net for the entire match. 

There are designated towels for each side to use to wipe the floor. A trainer with gloves handles the towels.

The pandemic meant that preseason practice that normally lasts 14 to 17 days lasted seven or eight weeks. Sagula, who last summer was inducted into the North Carolina Volleyball Hall of Fame, saw that as a huge positive.

“This has been a real blessing in some ways to have this time to develop and to learn how to deal with the unique things in practice — wiping down volleyballs, wearing masks and taking precautions,” Sagula said. “They’re using hand sanitizer probably 10 times, maybe more, in a practice just to keep the hands clean from the volleyballs. We take precautions —  no high fives, no slap fives and maybe a fist bump or elbow bumps. They want to protect each other. I think that’s a really big commitment.”

The extended preseason was particularly helpful for UNC’s freshmen. Four first-year Tar Heels played well at Blacksburg, led by Kaya Merkler (on left in top photo) and Aziah Buckner (in middle in top photo).

The pandemic has created a college volleyball season like no other. UNC will play eight ACC games in the fall then play about 10 more, plus 6 to 8 conference games, starting in January. The 2021 portion of the schedule hasn’t been set yet. 

The fall schedule features four sets of back-to-back matches at the same site, concluding with two home matches against Duke on Oct. 23 and Oct. 25. The league was divided into three pods for geographic purposes with Duke, Virginia Tech, Virginia and N.C. State in the Tar Heels’ pod. 

The NCAA championships will be held in April and every volleyball program will play games in 2021. The ACC, SEC, Big 12 and the Atlantic Sun are the only leagues playing games in the fall, when the entire season usually plays out.

That will mean that after the last Duke game, the team will be off for two months before the season resumes in January. Although the eight fall games count in the ACC standings, Sagula looks at them as a bit of a preseason.

“Hopefully, we can position ourselves and play well this fall,” Sagula said. “We’ll come back in January, and the bodies could be rested. I think what it could do is show some more higher-level volleyball in the spring again.”

Carolina’s next game is its home opener on Oct. 9 against Virginia. The teams also play at Carmichael Arena on Oct. 11. 

And the Tar Heels will be wearing masks.

Photos courtesy of Virginia Tech Athletics

UNC jumps to No. 12 in AP poll, thanks to Big Ten, Pac-12 teams

By R.L. Bynum
@RL_Bynum

In the strange world of 2020, North Carolina jumped six slots Sunday in the latest Associated Press college football poll. The rise has nothing to do with the Tar Heels’ performance in a 31-6 opening-game victory Saturday over Syracuse.

UNC, which was ranked No. 18 in the preseason poll, is No. 12 in the latest poll, thanks to six teams ahead of them that exited the poll because they aren’t playing (as of the moment) in 2020.

It’s the highest ranking for UNC since the Tar Heels were No. 10 after the 2015 regular season. In December of that season, Carolina was No. 8 before losing to Clemson in the ACC championship game.

The reality is that the Tar Heels’ rise is because of the six teams no longer in the poll.

The teams that were ahead of UNC in the preseason poll exited not because they lost but because they aren’t playing. The AP instructed poll voters to consider every school eligible for their preseason ballots regardless of whether they planned to play in 2020.

That meant that six schools ahead of Carolina in the preseason poll, all in either the Big Ten or the Pac-12, are now out of the poll: Ohio State (previously No. 2), Penn State (No. 7), Oregon (No. 9), Wisconsin (No. 12), Michigan (No. 16) and Southern Cal (No. 17).

The Tar Heels (1-0) face Charlotte (0-1) at 3:30 Saturday at Kenan Stadium in a game that regional sports networks will air. UNC is an early 28-point favorite.

AP college football poll

1Clemson (1-0)11,524 (60)
2Alabama (0-0)31,456
3Oklahoma (1-0)41,361
4Georgia (0-0)51,324
5Florida (0-0)81,237
6LSU (0-0)61,236 (1)
7Notre Dame (1-0)101,155
8Auburn (0-0)111,055
9Texas (1-0)141,033
10Texas A&M (0-0)13983
11Oklahoma State (0-0)15927
12North Carolina (1-0)18892
13Cincinnati (0-0)20647
14UCF (0-0)21632
15Tennessee (0-0)24528
16Memphis (1-0)495
17Miami (FL) (1-0)463
18Louisville (1-0)387
19Louisiana-Lafayette (1-0)377
20Virginia Tech (0-0)368
21Brigham Young (1-0)357
22Army (2-0)243
23Kentucky (0-0)238
24Appalachian State (1-0)237
25Pittsburgh (1-0)157

Others receiving votes: Baylor 146, West Virginia 81, Georgia Tech 69, TCU 49, Virginia 39, Arkansas State 33, SMU 32, Iowa State 14, Mississippi State 14, Boise State 6, South Florida 6, Ole Miss 5, Texas Tech 5, UAB 4, Missouri 3, Air Force 2, Florida State 2, Marshall 2, Houston 1.

Pool photo by Robert Willett