As ACC Network’s Dave O’Brien put it, there was a point in the middle of the third quarter where things were looking bleak. The Tar Heels were down 21 and had had no answer for the Wake Forest offense to that point having allowed 45 points with 6:56 remaining in the third quarter. The Tar Heels would put together a six-play, 75-yard drive, capped by a 4-yard touchdown throw from Sam Howell to Dyami Brown, though, that would shift the momentum in this one. The Tar Heels defense would force four consecutive punts and a turnover downs from there, allowing the offense to string together 35 unanswered. The Tar Heels would cap the largest comeback in program history, holding on for the 59-53 win. Let’s take a look at what we learned about this Tar Heel team in this amazing comeback.
Florida State and Virginia Experiences Pay Off
This was not the first time this season that the Tar Heels have faced a big deficit in a game so far this season. The game was nearly identical to the games against the Seminoles and Cavaliers that took place earlier in the year, but this time both units executed every time they had to late in the game to be able to complete the comeback this time. The experience in the prior two games definitely paid dividends in this one, especially when it came to the mindset on the sideline during the comeback. It’s not a situation that you would like to be in often, but without those earlier experiences, there is no telling if the Tar Heels would have been able to complete the comeback.
Sam Howell Continues to Cement His Legacy
As if he hadn’t already done enough for the Tar Heels in his career, Howell put together the single greatest passing performance in program history in a game where the Tar Heels needed him to. He threw for 323 yard and three touchdowns in the first half, but he and the Tar Heel offense sputtered a bit late in the first half and early in the second half, allowing the Demon Deacons to grow their lead. However, when they needed him to step up, he did. He would lead three consecutive touchdown drives, capping all three with touchdown passes to tie the game, before helping the team take the lead with a 20-yard touchdown run. Howell would finish the day 32 of 45 for a program-record 550 yards and six touchdowns, another program record. He added the rushing touchdown to make it seven total touchdowns on the day, becoming just the second player in ACC history to throw six touchdowns and rush for another, joining Lamar Jackson. Those seven touchdowns were also a program record and he finished the day 14 of 20 on passes 10+ yards downfield, throwing for 419 yards and six touchdowns. He has now thrown 61 touchdown passes in his career at Carolina, a number that is tied for third-most in program history. Former Tar Heel quarterback Marquise Williams suggested that Howell deserves a statue outside of Kenan Stadium and at this point, it’s hard to argue against it.
The Defense May Have Stepped Up Late, But There is Still Plenty of Concern
You have to hand it to the defense; when they needed to step up in the second half they did. However, it’s hard to forget what we saw from this team in the first half of this game. The defensive line remains a major concern, as they were pushed around for most of the day. On the edges, Tomon Fox and Tyrone Hopper struggled to contain the edges and didn’t create much pressure themselves. Chazz Surratt and Jeremiah Gemmel weren’t bad in the middle of the defense for the Tar Heels, but Gemmel just couldn’t hold his own when dropping in coverage. The beat up Tar Heel secondary was also out of whack for a majority of the day, having multiple miscommunications that led to lapses in coverage. The good news is, some of the young guys seemed to energize the unit later in the game, but there is still a lot of concern with this defense overall. It appears that Jay Bateman is telling us that he won’t be changing the scheme much this season, as witnessed by him refusing to take Gemmel off the field despite him being a liability against the slot receiver. If he is unwilling to adjust the scheme, the young guys will have to play more as the season wraps up. This defense still can’t be trusted, though, so unfortunately there is not much margin for error for the offense.
The Offense Might Have Enough Firepower to Carry This Team to ACC Championship Game
This offense has a ton of pressure on it, but it has continued to shine all season. Howell is the one everyone is talking about right now, but Dazz Newsome and Dyami Brown had huge days catching the football, as well. Newsome had his best game of the season and Brown has hit his stride since that Virginia game and the combination of Emery Simmons and Khafre Brown have been able to help produce enough to make this passing offense three dimensional. The strength of this team, though, still remains the running game, as both Javonte Williams and Michael Carter have continued their amazing seasons, drawing comparisons to some of the top running back duos of the 21st century. This unit has two tough tests left to close out the ACC slate against teams that will be huge headaches for the Tar Heel defense, so they must be able to keep up the production. They handled that pressure well today and there is no reason to think they won’t be able to do that going forward.
The Retro Uniforms Should Be Here to Stay
The outlook was looking a bit bleak for the retro uniforms, but the comeback sealed it. The uniforms are awesome and take us back to the most successful period of time in program history. After today’s historic comeback, there is no doubt that there needs to be a movement to make these the full-time uniforms.