The crisis is over at North Carolina, for the moment at least. A season going the wrong way — and fast — has been turned back in the general direction of its original destination.
There’s no argument to be made that the Tar Heels haven’t been less than the sum of their parts, even if those parts maybe weren’t as good as people thought they were. And while everyone seems to have theories why, what North Carolina needs right now are results.
This was that Saturday, as narrow an escape as it was.
Mack Brown wasn’t examining the dentistry of this particular equine present, a very physical and too-close-for-comfort 45-42 win over Miami, thanks to a tipped and intercepted pass when Miami took a shot at the win on third down in the final seconds rather than try an early field goal to force overtime.
The loss that loomed in the final seconds would have been nothing short of catastrophic, almost too grim an alternative to consider in the wake of last week’s debacle against Florida State for a team Brown admitted was “still fighting to find an identity.”
“The most important thing and the thing I’m so excited about is we found a way to win,” Brown said. “And winning is all that matters in this business.”
A win is indeed a win is a win, especially under these circumstances, and North Carolina will absolutely take it, getting some hard-nosed, head-down running by Sam Howell to pull the Tar Heels through against a team missing its own preseason Heisman candidate quarterback.
“This season has been so up and down, so many mixed emotions, and we didn’t lay down,” Howell said.
But there were enough red flags — and more than enough yellow ones, 10 for 102 yards against UNC alone — that no one in Chapel Hill should feel very comfortable. There are problems that need fixing, especially on defense, lest this be less of a step back in the right direction and more a temporary respite from frustration.
The Tar Heels had countless chances to put Miami away on Saturday, from halftime on, and repeatedly let the Hurricanes back into the game, right until their final play. Miami worked its way down to the Tar Heels’ 16-yard-line in the final minute, and it took Jeremiah Gemmel’s tip of a Tyler Van Dyke pass which somehow ricocheted into Cedric Gray’s arms with 6 seconds to play to seal a win that should have long ago been sealed.
“That thing stayed in the air for about an hour and a half,” Brown said.
North Carolina led by 14 at the half and could never extend it, never reach any level of comfort, because Miami just kept coming while the UNC offense too often stalled. The inability to put away a Miami team that had scored more than 28 points only once this season, and that against Central Connecticut State, was disconcerting at the least.
It would be one thing to let the Hurricanes pile up 194 yards of offense in the third quarter alone, or convert 4th-and-10 and 3rd-and-21, with D’Eriq King at quarterback. Against the freshman Van Dyke, with another freshman, Jaylan Knighton, forced to step in at running back, this was something else entirely.
Fortunately for the Tar Heels, they still have Howell throwing to Josh Downs, with Howell running for his life almost the first option, and that was enough to pull North Carolina through Saturday — even if Howell took an extraordinary pounding. He twice ran for touchdowns after bouncing off jaw-rattling collisions, three of them in short succession on the second run.
“Tough quarterback, the way he runs the ball,” said running back Ty Chandler, who had his second 100-yard game with UNC. “I might have to pick up some things from him.”
Howell now has 99 passing and rushing touchdowns in his career, tied with Marquise Williams for the school record, but he’s carrying a Christan McCaffrey-style workload, while taking a McCaffrey-style beating.
Whether Howell can keep that up is an open question, but he gets a week off to recover. He’ll need it because it only gets more difficult from here, with a trip to Notre Dame next after a week off, a nonconference game against undefeated Wake Forest, a trip to Coastal Division leader Pitt and the Black Friday game at N.C. State still to come.
North Carolina still has a long way to go to be as wildly overrated and inevitably disappointing on an annual basis as Miami, but the Tar Heels were giving it a run strictly within the scope of this season. This desperately needed win will take some of the pressure off, but only some.