The Sam Howell Heisman campaign got off to a rocky start.
No. 10 North Carolina lost 17-10 at Virginia Tech on Friday night in a game that exposed some serious flaws in the UNC offense. Namely, the offensive line.
Virginia Tech's defensive line hounded Howell all day and forced the game-clinching interception by Chamarri Conner with 37 seconds to go. Howell rolled right and had two defenders in his face before he could find a receiver. Howell then flung the ball toward the sideline as he was being spun to the ground and Conner caught the pick after a bobble.
It was Howell's third interception Friday. The potential top-five pick in the 2022 NFL draft didn't get much help from his offensive teammates, though he also didn't have one of his best games. While Howell showed flashes, North Carolina's offense was overmatched throughout the game.
The Tar Heels entered the 2021 season as a top-10 team on the strength of Howell's potential. The Tar Heels were 8-4 in 2020 and lost two 1,000-yard rushers in Javonte Williams and Michael Carter and its top two receivers in Dazz Newsome and Dyami Brown.
Those skill position losses were perhaps underestimated. While Josh Downs scored North Carolina's lone TD of the night on a 37-yard catch and run and had eight catches for 123 yards, the rest of UNC's receiving corps had nine catches combined. Howell finished the game 17-of-32 for 208 yards and a TD and three interceptions.
Howell was also sacked six times. Virginia Tech's defensive front was nearly unstoppable and prevented North Carolina from getting comfortable enough to consistently throw the ball downfield.
Big win for Virginia Tech
While Tech’s defense was phenomenal, the offense left a lot to be desired. As North Carolina struggled throughout the second half, the Hokies had multiple opportunities to put the game away and didn’t.
QB Braxton Burmeister was 12-of-19 passing for 169 yards, a TD and an interception, and UNC rushed 43 times for just 127 yards. It was not a pretty offensive performance. But it was enough to get the Hokies a win — and a huge win at that.
It’s one of the biggest victories in Justin Fuente’s head coaching career at Virginia Tech. The Hokies won 19 games in Fuente’s first two seasons and have won 19 games in the past three seasons combined. Virginia Tech was 5-6 in 2020 and it was easy to wonder what Fuente’s status would be if the Hokies failed to make a bowl for the second consecutive season. Last year was the first season since 1992 without a postseason appearance.
Beating North Carolina is a huge step to a bowl game this postseason. Virginia Tech has two more easily winnable non-conference games and home games against Syracuse and Duke. Just one more win across the season puts Virginia Tech at .500 — something that looks easily achievable given the defense’s performance Friday. And eight or nine wins isn’t out of the question if the offense improves.
North Carolina's outlook
All isn’t lost for North Carolina. The Tar Heels could easily reel off five wins ahead of an Oct. 16 matchup against Miami. A win against Miami keeps UNC firmly in the mix for the Coastal Division title and a potential matchup with Clemson in the ACC title game.
But UNC is going to need much better play up front and another playmaker or two to step up alongside Howell and Downs to make its potential a reality. Howell may be one of the best QBs in the country but he's going to need some help if UNC is going to end the season in the top 15.