Sam Howell had the best QB debut at Bank of America Stadium since Jake Delhomme

Sam Howell’s first game as a college quarterback was the stuff of storybooks, as he led late touchdown drives of 95 and 98 yards and directed North Carolina to a 24-20 upset of South Carolina in Charlotte.

Howell’s two touchdown passes and 245 passing yards Saturday also meant that old/new Tar Heels coach Mack Brown got a win in the first game he had coached at UNC since the 1997 season. Brown choked up after the game on the sideline, describing the victory on ESPN, and later did an awkwardly endearing dance in the locker room.

It was Brown’s 245th victory as a head coach. It was Howell’s first as a college quarterback.

“I was just trying to seize the moment and take advantage of this opportunity,” Howell said. “This is what I dreamed of — being back in my hometown, playing in front of all my close people. It was awesome.”

For the Gamecocks, who led 20-9 at the start of the fourth quarter, it was a bitter defeat for a team that already faces one of the nation’s toughest schedules in 2019.

Howell grew into one of the nation’s best quarterback prospects at Monroe’s Sun Valley High, which sits only 20 miles from Bank of America Stadium. He enrolled early at UNC and won the starting job in a matter of months. And when he trotted onto the field for its initial series Saturday, he became the first true freshman quarterback to start a UNC season opener ever.

For the first half, Howell was mostly handcuffed by a coaching staff that seemed intent on making him into a game manager who wouldn’t be allowed to make a big mistake. The Tar Heels’ first drive was symbolic: UNC drove inside South Carolina’s 25, and Howell then handed the ball off five times in a row until UNC settled for a field goal.

“We were very conservative with Sam Howell, obviously around the goal line, early,” Brown said. “We felt like at halftime — you know, he’s a quarterback, we’ve got to turn him loose. We’ve got to let him go. And he just played a tremendous second half.”

For the first three quarters, Howell also wasn’t particularly sharp when he did throw. He made a couple of nice plays and never threw an interception, but he also took a couple of sacks that were unnecessary and had one costly underthrow on a pass that could have gone for a touchdown.

When the fourth quarter began, things were going pretty much to form. The Gamecocks had been favored by 11 points, and they had an 11-point lead. The Tar Heels went 2-9 in 2018, and a loss in their 2019 season opener seemed imminent. A true freshman quarterback can’t really be expected to win his first game, right?

But then Howell flipped the script, ultimately turning this into the best quarterbacking debut at Bank of America Stadium since Jake Delhomme led Carolina back from a 17-point deficit against Jacksonville in his first game as a Panther in 2003.

Delhomme’s performance became legendary. If Howell’s career turns out well, people will remember it the same way.

“He played great,” UNC offensive tackle Charlie Heck said of Howell. “Kudos to him. To see him scrambling around and make those plays, that builds a lot of faith and confidence. He’s a playmaker.”

To start the comeback, Howell — who said he dealt with cramping in his throwing hand for much of the second half — got some help from another local product. Dyami Brown, a wide receiver from West Mecklenburg, made a one-handed, juggling catch in the end zone on the second play of the fourth quarter for a 22-yard TD.

Brown said he couldn’t see the ball on the play due to the sunlight streaming into his face, so he tried to “catch the bottom of the sun” and ended up grabbing the ball, too.

“That was a hell of a catch,” Howell said. “That was a really cool moment, me and him both being from Charlotte.”

That play finally ended the Tar Heels’ touchdown drought and brought the Tar Heels within 20-15. Brown ordered the Tar Heels to go for the two-point conversion, and Howell ran the option and kept the ball to score on the conversion to make it 20-17.

That ended a 98-yard drive. But surely Howell couldn’t do that twice in a row, right? This wasn’t high school.

Gamecocks coach Will Muschamp certainly thought not. Instead of going for it on fourth-and-1 at his own 49 on USC’s next possession, he took the conservative route and punted to the Tar Heels.

Howell and UNC took over at their own 5 this time — and the Tar Heels promptly went 95 yards. Howell threw 31- and 23-yard darts to Dazz Newsome, then floated a 17-yard touchdown pass to Beau Corrales in which Corrales won a jump ball for the score.

Said Corrales of Howell: “Anytime a true freshman is playing, they are going to have some jitters .... Just being around the guy, he’s not too much of a vocal leader. But if you’re around (Howell), you definitely feel the confidence. To feel the vibe he gives off, it’s a great feeling, and it definitely pushed the rest of the offense to go harder. The dude is a baller.”

That second Howell TD pass put UNC up, 24-20, with 8:26 left still left plenty of time for quarterback Jake Bentley and South Carolina. But the Gamecocks couldn’t score again — even after starting one drive at the UNC 37 — as Howell the freshman ended up outplaying Bentley the senior. He got a big assist from defensive back Myles Wolfolk, who intercepted Bentley twice in the fourth quarter.

Howell got the win, Mack was back, and for one afternoon, everything was right with a Tar Heels football program that has too often been in shambles over the past few years.

Even a horrible decision late in the game — when the Tar Heels took an early knee on fourth down at their own 48, allowing Bentley a free shot at a potential game-winning Hail Mary with 11 seconds to go — didn’t end up hurting the Tar Heels because Bentley got sacked by former high school All-American quarterback Chazz Surratt (who had 12 tackles in his first start as a linebacker) on the game’s final play.

Some UNC fans will rue their decision not to buy tickets for this one.

On a 90-degree afternoon hot enough to melt a helmet, lots of folks found better things to do than attend the Belk College Kickoff on Labor Day weekend. Bank of America’s upper deck was mostly empty. The attendance of 52,183 was almost exactly in line with where it was the last time UNC and USC met in this neutral-site game, in 2015. In that game, South Carolina’s 17-13 win drew 51,664.

This was the fourth edition of the kickoff game in Charlotte and three of the games have drawn in the low 50,000s. The one exception: The 2018 meeting between West Virginia and Tennessee, which drew 66,793.

Those who were there Saturday, though, saw a performance by the local quarterback that was unforgettable.

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Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for The Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. In 2018, Fowler won the Thomas Wolfe award for outstanding newspaper writing. He also hosted the Observer’s hit podcast “Carruth,” which Sports Illustrated named the best podcast of the year in 2018.