CHAPEL HILL, NC – Sam Howell threw five touchdown passes and ran for a career-best 112 yards as No. 21 North Carolina took over after halftime to beat Virginia 59-39 on Saturday night.
The Tar Heels (2-1, 1-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) scored touchdowns on all five of their second-half drives, which helped turn a 28-24 halftime deficit into a 52-31 lead on Howell’s short TD throw to Kamari Morales with 12:13 left. And after a first-half shootout with Brennan Armstrong and the Cavaliers (2-1, 0-1), UNC gave up only a field goal in the third quarter while also coming up with Ja’Qurious Conley’s interception.
That was more than enough help for the Tar Heels’ offense, which kept ending drives with with end-zone celebrations to speed back out in front after squandering a 24-7 first-half lead.
And there were no shortage of offensive stars.
Tennessee graduate transfer Ty Chandler ran for a career-high 198 yards with two touchdowns, the last coming from 7 yards out with 2:57 left to seal it. And Josh Downs had eight catches for 203 yards and a pair of TDs. Perhaps more impressively, the Tar Heels showed a different dimension by leaning on their ground game instead of putting everything on Howell’s arm.
“We just played a complete game on offense,” Howell said.
The result? The Tar Heels ran 47 times for 392 yards compared to just 21 pass attempts for their star quarterback, and finished with 699 total yards. It was UNC’s biggest scoring output against Virginia since 1936 in the long-running series and second-most ever.
Armstrong had a huge day of his own for the Cavaliers, throwing for a program-record 554 yards — the most ever by any UNC opponent — with four touchdowns. That included a career-best performance for Dontayvion Wicks (seven catches for 183 yards and a score) as the Cavaliers finished with 574 total yards.
“There was basically two different games going on,” Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “There was our offense against their defense and I was really impressed with our off performance. But then there was their offense against our defense, and they clearly won that matchup in every way.”
Virginia: The Cavaliers had won four straight meetings but they had few answers for the Tar Heels’ offense other than Fentrell Cypress III picking off Howell in the end zone and returning it 66 yards to set up a second-quarter touchdown. They also did nothing to help Armstrong, running 22 times for just 21 yards to leave everything on the arm of their quarterback.
North Carolina: The hype around the Tar Heels as the preseason league Coastal Division favorite had lost some luster after a season-opening loss at Virginia Tech, which included Howell being sacked six times and harassed into the first three-interception game of his career. The Tar Heels knew they couldn’t afford another stumble in the division race with that early loss, then responded by beating the Cavaliers for the first time since October 2016.
After a 14-spot fall from No. 10 after the Virginia Tech loss, the Tar Heels might be set up to start climbing again after a terrific all-around offensive performance that looked much more like what everyone expected coming into the season.
Virginia: The Cavaliers return home to play a cross-divisional league game Friday against Wake Forest, which beat Florida State on Saturday for a 3-0 start.
North Carolina: The Tar Heels play their second league road division game in the opening month of the schedule, visiting Georgia Tech next Saturday.