For Howell and the Tar Heels, it's been all about the finish in every phase
Myles Dorn smiled, just minutes after midnight on Sunday morning, when he thought about how North Carolina had held off Miami for a 28-25 victory despite being outgained by 99 yards.
“It’s all about the finish,” he said.
Ain’t that the truth for the Tar Heels this season — in more ways than one.
Not only has Carolina gotten two fourth-quarter comebacks and two last-second defensive stands in its two victories, but the Tar Heels have made the most of finishing their drives into the red zone while disrupting their opponents’ just enough to squeeze out wins.
The circumstances of those finishes has been even more unbelievable, with Sam Howell, the first true freshman quarterback in program history engineering three fourth-quarter scoring drives, covering 98, 95 and 75 yards before ending with highlight-reel catches.
Howell, who has put up strong numbers overall at 31/48 for 537 yards and four touchdowns, has been nothing short of spectacular with the game on the line, completing 10 of his 14 attempts in the fourth quarter for 133 yards and three touchdowns.
Howell's performance by quarter
Naturally, Howell shrugged off his fourth-quarter heroics, which included converting a 4 and 17 with a 20-yard completion to Toe Groves on Saturday.
“I just try to do what I can to help this team win,” he said.
Reflecting on the fourth-down conversion, Mack Brown looked back on another from his time at Texas, when Vince Young ran for 22 yards to convert a 4 and 18 against Kansas in 2004, en route to a national title.
“I thought Sam showed that same composure,” Brown said. “A lot of young quarterbacks — especially who had just been sacked — would've had antsy feet, thrown to an underneath guy to get it out of his hands quickly and they tackle us under the chains and the game’s over.”
Lofty company, but that further lends itself to what offensive coordinator has referred to as the “it factor” with Howell.
“There’s just a very natural poise,” he said. “He’s mature for his age and it’s interesting because he’s sitting in a high school class in December and here he is leading us to two comebacks in the fourth quarter.”
In tossing a game-winning touchdown pass for the second straight week, Howell kept the Tar Heels a perfect 8-for-8 on trips into the red zone this season, while the defense has bowed up and limited opponents to three touchdowns on eight red zone trips to go along with three field goals. Carolina got two red zone stops on Saturday with Xach Gill blocking a field goal attempt and Chazz Surratt’s bringing down Jarren Williams short on 4 and 1 in the third quarter.
Not only has the fourth quarter been the best period for Carolina’s offense, gaining 274 yards and scoring three of its five touchdowns, but the defense has also turned it on when it matters most, holding South Carolina and Miami to 145 yards and 1 of 6 on third downs.
“On Saturday night, we didn't stop the run great all the time,” Brown said, “but we played really well on red zone defense and forced some kicks.”
It hasn’t been perfect on the field.
Miami rolled up 488 yards on Saturday, Carolina has converted just 7 of 26 third-down attempts on the season and left a few points on the field with its red-zone execution on the red zone.
But it’s been enough for a perfect reversal of the Tar Heels’ fortunes after so many recent failures late in games.
“As a head coach couldn't have scripted it any better because the biggest problem that we had on Saturdays was we were in some fourth quarter games and didn't finish,” Brown said. “So now they finished twice and we sat out there and it's amazing the learning curve and the teachable moments that you have.
“They're learning how to win and that's fun to watch.”