It was 4th and 17 from the UNC 40. Miami led 25-20 with 2:55 remaining, and Carolina had no timeouts remaining.
The game was on the line.
It was the biggest play of the game, the biggest of the season and the biggest of his career.
Sam Howell didn’t think any of that.
What did he think?
“Just another play.”
That’s how Howell operates. Mack Brown says his demeanor is the same after a touchdown as it is after a sack.
And UNC needed every bit of Howell’s composure in that 20-yard conversion to Toe Groves and throughout the game in a second straight 4th-quarter comeback that boosted Carolina to a 2-0 record and a fast start in the ACC.
The true freshman quarterback finished 16-24 for 274 yards and two touchdowns, good for a 190 QB rating.
Much of it came in a first quarter that was boosted by a sellout crowd at primetime, as the Tar Heels jumped out to a 17-3 lead, highlighted by a 62-yard Dyami Brown touchdown catch.
Players and coaching staff alike praised the home fans for giving the team a major advantage in Carolina’s first game of the season in Kenan Stadium.
“The atmosphere was the best I’ve ever seen here,” Brown said after the game.
But Miami’s defense, the 4th-ranked unit in the country last season, settled in after a rocky start and locked down the Tar Heels in the second quarter.
UNC mustered only 5 total yards in the second quarter, including -4 rushing yards, while Miami scored 10 unanswered to pull to 13-17 at halftime.
The Hurricane defense continued to dominate in the 3rd quarter, especially in the run game.
Outside of Javonte Williams, who finished with 76 rushing yards, UNC managed just 23 yards on the ground for the game.
With Miami taking away a rushing attack that gashed a South Carolina defense to the tune of 238 yards in the season opener, Carolina needed Howell to step up on the biggest stage.
And he delivered.
After a Will Mallory touchdown gave Miami a 25-20 advantage with 4:38 remaining, its first lead of the night, UNC needed to drive 75 yards in order to stay unbeaten.
A 22-yard Williams run and a short completion to Brown had the Tar Heels clicking.
Then Howell was sacked twice, and the drive (and game) seemed over facing 4th and long.
The punt unit came on, but after calling the team’s final timeout, Brown said offensive coordinator Phil Longo convinced him to go for it rather than taking a gamble on the defense getting a stop.
So Howell stepped up in the pocket calmly and rifled a pass to Groves just beyond the sticks.
Dazz Newsome ended the game-winning drive with a SportsCenter Top 10 catch in the end zone, and a Michael Carter two-point conversion made it 28-25, UNC.
The UNC defense, as they had done all night, bent but didn’t break, and Miami kicker Bubba Baxa missed a 49-yard field goal wide left.
Just like that, the game was over, and Carolina was 2-0 for the first time since 2014.
“I think we’re starting to turn some heads,” Howell said. “But we really don’t care what people think about us.”
Just another play.
Header photo by Smith Hardy.