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North Carolina starts the Mack Brown era with a big victory over South Carolina

UNC shocks South Carolina in Mack Brown’s return

Check out photos from North Carolina's win over South Carolina in Tarheels' coach Mack Brown's first game back at UNC.
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Check out photos from North Carolina's win over South Carolina in Tarheels' coach Mack Brown's first game back at UNC.

When Mack Brown was hired to coach North Carolina’s football team in November, he vowed that this wouldn’t be a rebuilding year. He said his team planned on winning this season.

Saturday against South Carolina, the Tar Heels made that look possible. UNC’s Sam Howell, who Saturday became the first true freshman quarterback to start a season-opener in school history, threw two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, and the Tar Heels overcame an 11-point second half deficit to win, 24-20.

Before Saturday’s game, North Carolina hadn’t won a season-opener against a Power 5 opponent since 1997.

“That’s been too long,” Brown said Monday. “We need to fix that.”

Consider it fixed.

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North Carolina’s Khafre Brown (1) jumps into the stands to celebrate the Tar Heels’ 24-20 victory over South Carolina with fans on Saturday, August 31, 2019 at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

The Tar Heels outscored the Gamecocks 15-7 in the second half.

UNC trailed South Carolina 20-9 heading into the fourth quarter.

But Howell and the defense came up big. Howell finished the game 15-of-24 with 245 yards and two touchdowns.

The touchdown pass that put the Tar Heels up for good was a 17-yard pass to junior wide receiver Beau Corrales in the corner of the end zone with 8:24 left in the game. The play was contested, but Howell placed it where only Corrales could come up with it.

South Carolina had a chance to re-take the lead three times in the fourth quarter, but UNC’s defense got the stops it needed. UNC safety Myles Wolfolk intercepted two passes in the final three minutes.

His second interception occurred with 1:43 left in the game, essentially sealing the game, erasing a recent history of falling short in the clutch. Seven of UNC’s nine losses in 2018 came by 10 points or less.

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North Carolina’s Myles Wolfolk (11) celebrates the Tar Heels’ 24-20 victory over South Carolina on Saturday, August 31, 2019 at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C. Wolfolk had two interceptions in the last thee minutes of the fourth quarter to help seal the Tar Heels’ victory. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

The game Saturday started slow for the Tar Heels. They scored three field goals in the first three quarters and played conservatively. But the coaching staff let Howell loose in the second half and he eventually found his stride late in the game.

The Tar Heels were without a few key players early on. Senior cornerback Patrice Rene and linebacker Dominique Ross were suspended the first half by the ACC for their involvement in a fight last season. Ross was suspended the second half for violating team rules.

But it did not affect them.

First down

The Tar Heels committed only one turnover. They took care of the football. Turnovers had been a problem throughout camp, but it seemed Saturday that the Tar Heels had fixed those problems.

That kept them in the game, giving them a chance to win.

They also forced two turnovers, the last one by Wolfolk, which sealed the game.

Touchdown

UNC ran the ball effectively. Sophomore running back Javonte Williams led the Tar Heels with 102 rushing yards on 18 carries. Junior Michael Carter also ran well. He added 76 yards on 16 carries.

They ran it early and often.

Throughout camp, UNC’s running game — with Carter, Javonte Williams and Antonio Williams — had been its strong suit. Antonio Williams, a senior, did not run much in the first half. He had one carry for two yards. But in the second half, he busted three consecutive runs for 52 yards.

Combined, the Tar Heels rushed for 238 yards.

As the season progresses, UNC’s running game should open it up for its passing game.

UNC football coach Mack Brown talks with reporters following his Tar Heels' upset win over the South Carolina Gamecocks Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019.

Offsides

Penalties.

UNC committed three penalties in the first 19 plays, and six in the first half for 50 yards. One of the penalties was a 15-yard hands-to-the face penalty on second down.

Penalties were a serious issue for the Tar Heels under former coach Larry Fedora. Last season, the Tar Heels averaged 55.6 penalty yards per game. One of Brown’s goals this season was to help the Tar Heels become a more disciplined team. In game one, they did not show that.

They finished with 10 penalties for 90 yards.

UNC’s special teams defense also struggled. It gave up 66 punt return yards and 100 kick return yards.

ICYMI

The Air Raid offense looked good early on. Most of Howell’s throws were uncontested. But the Tar Heels often went with a conservative approach with Howell.

North Carolina ran 12 plays inside the 20 in the first half. Two were field goal attempts and 10 were rushes.

In the first quarter, on third-and-7 from the USC 8-yard-line, UNC elected to run with sophomore Javonte Williams instead of pass and gained only three yards.

In the second quarter, on third-and-8 from the USC 8-yard-line, the coaching staff decided to run with Carter, who gained only one yard.

Both drives ended with field goals.

Both were interesting calls, because prior to those plays, Howell had thrown the ball well. He was 7-of-11 for 94 yards.

UNC true freshman quarterback talks answers reporters' questions Saturday, after UNC's 24-20 season-opening win over USC. Howell finished with 245 passing yards and two touchdowns.

Key numbers

3 — The Tar Heels were 3-for-3 in the red zone in the first half. But all three scores were short field goals. The Tar Heels had three drives inside the 10 yard-line but could not score a touchdown. They finally managed to score a touchdown in the redzone in the fourth quarter.

11 — The Tar Heels had lost 11 consecutive season-openers against Power 5 opponents prior to Saturday’s game. The last time the Tar Heels beat a Power 5 opponent in a season opener was 1997 against Indiana. It was also Brown’s final season at UNC in his first stint.

But Saturday, the Tar Heels pulled off the victory.

2 — It didn’t happen until the fourth quarter, but Howell finally recorded the first touchdown pass of his college career. He threw a perfect pass to sophomore wide receiver Dyami Brown, who was heavily contested. Brown bobbled it initially but came down with the ball in the endzone.

Howell threw his other touchdown pass to Corrales with 8:26 left in the game. The touchdown put the Tar Heels up for good 24-20.

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