No. 21 North Carolina discovered its running game and ran away in a shootout with Virginia 59-39 Saturday night in Kenan Stadium. It was the most the Tar Heels (2-1, 1-1 ACC) scored in the South’s oldest football rivalry since beating the Wahoos 54-7 in 1943.
There was no talk of the Heels’ offensive line woes during this game, despite having to replace three players in the starting lineup. Center Brian Anderson, guard Josh Ezeudu and tackle Jordan Tucker all had some sort of ailment that prevented them from starting, although they all played.
There was also no talk of how the Heels would replace running backs Michael Carter and Javonte Williams
Behind a revamped line, running back Ty Chandler posted his first 100-yard game for Carolina. The graduate transfer from Tennessee had a 60-yard run in the third quarter put him over the mark as he rushed for a career-high 198 yards on 20 carries. His previous best was 158 yards against UTEP.
Quarterback Sam Howell rushed for 112 yards, his second consecutive 100-yard game, as the Heels gained for a season-high 307 yards on the ground.
Thanks to the running game, Carolina looked like the high-powered offense it was last season.
Despite logging fewer passing attempts, the Heels still hit on big plays in the passing game too. Howell had at least five touchdown passes for the third time in his career, including a 75-yarder to Khafre Brown, a 59-yarder to Josh Downs and a 37-yarder to Downs.
Downs finished with eight catches for 203 yards and two touchdowns.
UNC again resembled a team that could simply outscore its opponents rather than shut them down. And for the first half it seemed like the Heels would have to keep scoring the entire game.
Carolina could not stop Virginia quarterback Brennan Armstrong in the first half, despite the fact that he didn’t have a running game fueling his passing numbers. The Tar Heels held the Wahoos to just three rushing yards in the first half. It mattered little as Armstrong dissected the UNC secondary completing 21 of 27 attempts for 364 yards and three touchdowns.
The Heels’ defense continued their trend of clamping down in the second half. They forced a punt on the Hoos’ first drive of the second half. They held to a field goal on the second. Then strong safety Ja’Qurious Conley intercepted a Brennan Armstrong pass.
That stretch of possessions kept the Cavaliers, which rallied from down 17 in the second quarter to take a 28-24 lead into halftime, from being able to keep up with UNC’s offense.
Carolina scored touchdowns on all five of its possessions in the second half to put the game out of reach.
Carolina’s pass defense allowed big play after big play in the passing game. The Cavaliers had nine passes go for more than 20 yards, two of which were touchdowns. When Billy Kemp IV caught a 21-yard score with six seconds left in the first half, it capped off a 17-point rally to give UVA a 28-24 lead at halftime.
UNC’s defense registered just 11 takeaways in 12 games last season. Thanks to Conley’s second interception of the season and a Des Evans fumble recovery, the Tar Heels now have five takeaways in three games this season.
UNC cornerback Storm Duck had not played in a game since the second game of last season, a 26-22 win at Boston College on Oct. 3. Duck has battled separate injuries, but finally made his return to action against the Cavaliers. He entered the lineup late in the first quarter and logged his first tackle on the drive.
21: Virginia’s total yards rushing. The last time the Heels allowed less than 50 yards to an opponent was when it held N.C. State to just 34 yards last season.
25.4: The average yards per catch for UNC receiver Josh Downs. The sophomore set a new career-high in receiving yards with 203 on eight receptions.
6: The number of times the Tar Heels have surpassed 600 yards in total offense in coach Mack Brown’s three seasons back in Chapel Hill. UNC finished with 699 total yards against the Cavaliers.
554: Virginia quarterback Brennan Armstrong set a new school record for most passing yards in a game and the most by an UNC opponent.