It was inevitable that at some point North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell would struggle.
In his first two college games, he passed for 519 yards, four touchdowns, zero interceptions, and pulled off two improbable fourth-quarter comebacks against South Carolina and then Miami. And for the first time in five years, the Tar Heels were 2-0 to start the season under new coach Mack Brown.
But on Friday night against Wake Forest, Howell, a true freshman, looked his age.
In the first half of his first road game, he completed 5 of 10 passes for 17 yards, and was pulled by Brown with 5:56 left in the second quarter. He was replaced by backup Jace Ruder before returning in the second half. At that point, the Tar Heels were down 21-0.
Unlike those games against South Carolina and Miami, the Tar Heels’ offense could not get anything going in the first three quarters of their 24-18 loss to the Demon Deacons.
“This one is on me,” Howell told the media Saturday night after the game. “I’ve got to play a lot better for our team to win.”
As he answered questions from reporters, Howell repeated that phrase or a similar one at least five times.
Howell is right. He has to play better. But not all the blame can be placed on him.
Not only did the Tar Heels struggle to pass, they struggled to run. They didn’t gain a first down until 11:24 left in the second quarter. And they didn’t cross the 50-yard-line until the third quarter.
Some of the play calls — particularly the lateral passes that defined UNC’s season in 2018 — were questionable. There were bad snaps. The Tar Heels’ running game — their best unit — turned the ball over, which Wake Forest turned into points.
And when UNC abandoned the run, the Demon Deacons keyed in on the young quarterback.
Howell was sacked a season-high six times, and was hurried four times by a brutal Wake Forest defense.
Wake Forest, which entered Friday’s game ranked 123rd out of 130 FBS teams in passing defense, looked elite at times. The Tar Heels’ nine first-half drives ended in either a punt or a fumble.
“Wake Forest, they sold the crowd out and they brought a lot of passion and energy into the game,” UNC junior running back Michael Carter said after the game. “I’m not saying we didn’t. We just did it too late.”
The Tar Heels turned things around in the fourth quarter. Trailing by 18, Howell and the Tar Heels scored 15 quick points to cut Wake’s deficit to three.
But Wake Forest kicked a field goal with 1:09 left on the clock to go up by six, leaving the Tar Heels with too little time to get down field and score.
Howell finished the game completing 17 of 28 passes for 182 yards and two touchdowns.
“It hurts a little bit, but I feel like we needed this coming off South Carolina and Miami,” UNC sophomore linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel said after the game. “We thought we were higher up. Maybe we needed this loss to bring us back down and keep our head straight.”
In all three games this season, the Tar Heels have finished strong. Against Wake Forest, UNC picked up 73 of its 144 rushing yards, and 120 of its 189 passing yards in the fourth quarter.
However, the Tar Heels’ inability to put together a full game finally caught up to them.
Howell has one passing touchdown in the first three quarters of three games this season. He has thrown five in the three fourth quarters.
UNC plays Appalachian State (2-0) and No. 1 Clemson (2-0) in the next two weeks. If the Tar Heels want to win those games, they’ll have to play well all four quarters.
It’s a learning process for a team that won only three games in 2017 and two in 2018. And it’s also a learning process for a true freshman with three games of college experience.
“He’s tough as nails, he’ll be really critical of himself,” UNC coach Mack Brown said of Howell Friday after the game. “But I want him to take that he had enough about him to hang in a really tough environment and come back and give us a chance to win the game.
“And I think because of that, that’s who he is.”