RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Mack Brown has North Carolina headed back to a bowl game in the first year of his second stint as the Tar Heels’ coach after freshman Sam Howell’s career-best 401 yards passing Saturday night sparked a 41-10 win over rival N.C. State.
After a costly first-half interception, Howell threw three second-half touchdown passes as UNC overcame a 10-6 halftime deficit with 28 third-quarter points. The Tar Heels (6-6, 4-4 ACC) intercepted Devin Leary twice and recovered a Zonovan Knight fumble in the third quarter, when Javonte Williams ran for two scores and caught an 11-yard touchdown pass from Howell.
N.C. State (4-8, 1-7) finished the season on a six-game losing streak despite scoring the only touchdown of the first half on a 39-yard pass from Leary to Tabari Hines following Payton Wilson’s interception of Howell. The Wolfpack held UNC to 24 rushing yards and two field goals in the first half as Williams managed just seven yards on four carries.
But Williams rushed for 51 yards and two touchdowns on five carries in the third quarter and added three catches for 42 yards and another score as the post-halftime surge carried the team to bowl eligibility.
“We’d lost to Duke four out of the last five and we got over that hump,” Brown said. “And we’d lost to State four of the last five and we got over that hump. And they get another game together and this gives us a chance to have a winning season by winning the bowl game. So they’re really happy in that dressing room.”
Following the second interception of Leary, Howell put an exclamation point on the quarter with a 52-yard scoring pass to Dyami Brown. Howell increased his touchdown pass total for the season to 35 — an FBS record for a true freshman.
Howell was 23-for-33 passing as Mack Brown said the interception did not seem to rattle him in the locker room at halftime. Howell said he was trying to throw the ball away on that play, and it slipped out of his hands.
“We struggled early on,” he said. “Most of that was on me. There were a couple of bad decisions I made in the first half. We struggled and had some guys lose their footing in the first half. At halftime we just took a deep breath and just tried to be ourselves in the second half.”
After UNC took a deep breath, the Wolfpack quickly found itself in a deep hole. Williams said he changed to longer cleats to improve his footing on the wet field, and the Tar Heels rushed for 156 yards after halftime.
“I thought our guys played with a lot of heart in the first half,” said N.C. State coach Dave Doeren, “and I thought we did absolutely everything possible to lose that game in the third quarter.”
Becoming bowl-eligible was a sweet accomplishment for a team that went 2-9 in 2018 under Larry Fedora, who was replaced by Brown after the season. Brown, who coached the Tar Heels to a 74-52-1 record from 1988 to 1997, saw this year’s team surpass UNC’s total number of wins from 2017 and 2018 combined while all six Tar Heel losses were by seven points or fewer.
“Just coming off two losing seasons and now we’re going to a bowl game, that just shows how hard we’ve been working over the summer, how much closer we’ve come together, and how hard the coaches are working also,” Williams said.
N.C. State stumbled to an injury-riddled, disappointing finish after posting 9-4 records in 2017 and 2018. The third-quarter collapse against the Tar Heels was painful after the strong first half.
Wilson said the Wolfpack can’t blame its difficulties on injuries because the team also made a lot of mistakes throughout the season.
“We need to get in the weight room, we need to get healthy, we need to get a lot better,” he said.
After entering the week ranked 129th in the FBS in turnovers forced, N.C. State got a much-needed boost from a takeaway late in the second quarter. Wilson’s interception of Howell gave the Wolfpack possession at midfield, and five plays later Leary converted the turnover into a 39-yard touchdown pass to Hines.
But N.C. State’s own turnover-prone ways turned a promising start into bitter disappointment in the second half. The Wolfpack, which had committed 12 turnovers in its previous five games, suffered three giveaways in the third quarter. Leary was intercepted by Don Chapman and Trey Morrison in the quarter, and Knight lost a fumble. UNC outscored N.C. State 28-0 in the quarter.
The UNC wide receiver duo of Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome combined for 280 total receiving yards and two of the Tar Heels’ five touchdowns. The two accounted for nearly half of North Carolina’s 620 yards of total offense.
Newsome set a new career with 130 yard receiving. Brown, who entered the game tied for third in the ACC with 10 receiving touchdowns and eighth in receiving yards with 72.5 yards per game, added 150 yards and another touchdown to his count.
UNC: Becoming bowl-eligible gives the program momentum and an opportunity to get valuable extra practice time with the new coaching staff. A lopsided win in the state rivalry game also could give the Tar Heels a recruiting edge after losing four of their previous five games against N.C. State.
N.C. State: The injury-riddled Wolfpack never gave up this season and put forth a courageous effort in the first half of the state rivalry game despite having no chance to become bowl-eligible. N.C. State loses just 12 seniors, so next season it will return numerous underclassmen who got valuable experience because of all the injuries.
UNC: Will play on a bowl game TBA, ending a two-year postseason drought.
N.C. State: The Wolfpack’s season has concluded.
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