Updated: Sep 3, 2019
For the first time since 2000, the Tar Heels have opened the season with a win against an FBS opponent. For the first time since 1997, a Power 5 team went down at the hands of the Tar Heels in a season opener. All it took for that win: a true freshman quarterback helping to lead two 95+ yard drives and a near mind-blowing blunder at the end. Here’s what we learned on Saturday in Charlotte about this Tar Heel team.
Sam Howell Was The Right Choice at Quarterback
Earlier this week during “Mack Brown Live”, Mack said there was a good chance that both Howell and Jace Ruder would see time on Saturday. After the first few drives, many could see that was not going to be the case. Slingin’ Sammy Howell played about as clean of a game as you could hope for as a true freshman starting his first game, outside of two fumbles. All was forgotten about those fumbles, though, when Howell would lead the Tar Heels on two second-half scoring drives of 98 and 95 yards, respectively, highlighted by a magical completion to Dazz Newsome, that is still mind-boggling any time you see it hit your timeline, and two perfectly placed touchdown passes to Dyami Brown and Beau Corrales. The mindset of this young man, the first true freshman to ever start a season opener in program history, was calm and confident, something that’s rare to see, especially with a team around him that went 5-18 in the last two years. Sam Howell, ladies and gentlemen, has the “it” factor and got his career off to a fantastic start on Saturday.
This Running Game Has the Chance to Be Special
We knew that this backfield was deep for the 2019 Tar Heel team, but what we didn’t know was how this offensive line would perform on Saturday. The unit that had a lot of question marks heading in with all of the movement throughout the camp season, against one of the best defensive lines in the country, dominated the line of scrimmage, especially in the run game, helping pave the way for the Tar Heels to rack up 238 rushing yards. While it may be tough to repeat those numbers in every game this season, if the offensive line can play the way they did up front on Saturday and the Tar Heel backfield can stay healthy, this run game could turn a lot of heads nationally.
Chazz Surratt Deserves Recognition
After all of the flack that Surratt has received at quarterback in each of the past two seasons, he deserves a ton of respect for the game he played on Saturday, his first at inside linebacker. As Heel Tough Blog analyst Josh Marlow put it on Twitter in the first quarter, Surratt was everywhere all day, finishing the game with 12 total tackles, 1.0 TFL, 1.0 sack and a pass deflection. With Dominique Ross missing the entire game due to suspension after a violation of team rules, Surratt did exactly what he needed to to fill the role and was one of the main reasons the Tar Heels held the Gamecocks to just 40 yards rushing in the second half.
We Asked For a Playmaker in the Secondary and Myles Wolfolk Stepped Up
The last three seasons have been a struggle forcing turnovers, especially when it comes to intercepting opposing quarterbacks. When the Heels needed some big stops late on Saturday, however, Myles Wolfolk came to the rescue. On each of the Gamecocks final two drives (we are not counting the final play as a drive), Wolfolk picked off Jake Bentley to help the Tar Heels hold on to the victory, the bigger of the two coming with the Gamecocks threating on the Tar Heel 26-yard line. Wolfolk was probably the least talked about member of that starting four in the secondary this offseason, but he deserves to be talked about going forward.
Penalties and Game Management Need Work
These were two humungous issues that derailed the Larry Fedora era and there are definitely still some kinks to work out for this new staff. The penalties were definitely frustrating and, at times, costly, as the Heels took ten penalties for 90 yards, including three false start penalties on wide receivers and two hands-to-the-face penalties on defensive linemen. That might be in part due to first game sloppiness, but this is one Larry Fedora staple that we would prefer doesn’t stick around. As for the game management issues, Mack addressed this with Allison Williams after the game when he said “we almost tried to blow it for kids”, referencing the fourth-down kneel that still left South Carolina with a Hail Mary shot from the Tar Heel 47-yard line at the end of the game. These were the two big bumps in the road for the Tar Heels on Saturday, but the team did overcome those obstacles to pull out a memorable win in Bank of America Stadium.
Mack Already Has That Roy Feel
Let me explain before you begin punching and yelling at your computer screen. The amount of emotion that Mack showed in the postgame press conference, talking about what the win meant to the kids and the fanbase, who both deserved it so much in his words, had a Roy Williams-type fell to it, especially the connections with the players. Mack also, as Roy has done after huge wins, busted out the dance moves, laughing at those who were concerned about his age when the hire was first made, one of which was admittedly myself. Mack brings that “Tar Heel Family” feel to the football team, something that many fans have been looking for since he left back in 1997.