While the improved, position-less defense of Jay Bateman deserves its fair share of credit for North Carolina’s 2-1 start, it’s worth circling back to a quick nugget from Friday’s exciting Wake Forest-UNC matchup. Once again, freshman quarterback Sam Howell shook off some early struggles and delivered late — as the Tar Heels nearly pulled off the road upset against a very good Wake Forest team.
After three games, Howell is one of just eight FBS quarterbacks with at least 75 pass attempts, zero interceptions and a completion rate north of 60 percent. Alabama star Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert of Oregon are on that list, too. For the season, Howell has completed 63.2 percent of his pass attempts (48-of-76) for 701 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions.
Howell ranks second in the ACC in yards per attempt: 9.2, which is just behind Wake Forest star Jamie Newman (9.3).
4th Quarter Numbers
However, as good as Howell’s looked through 180 minutes of football, it’s his fourth quarter play that jumps out. Against three Power Five opponents, Howell has completed 17-of-23 (73.9 percent) passes in the final quarter. That’s translated to 289 yards (12.6 yards per attempt), five touchdowns and, of course, zero interceptions.
Inside the ACC, only Newman and Georgia Tech’s Lucas Johnson have higher fourth quarter completion rates — 75 percent. (Johnson has attempted just eight fourth quarter passes, too.) Howell leads the ACC in fourth quarter passing yards and touchdowns. He has eight completions of 15+ yards in the fourth quarter, which ranks No. 1 in the FBS, and his quarterback rating of 251.2 in that quarter is also top five in the country.
(Note: Dyami Brown continues to evolve as a powerful go-to receiver for UNC, too: 233 yards receiving on 11 receptions — 21.2 yards per catch. Over half of his receiving yards — 128 — have come in the fourth quarter; so, too, have two of his touchdown receptions.)
During the loss at Wake Forest, Howell had his issues; Boogie Basham, Justin Strnad and the rest of the Demon Deacons on defense made things rather tough. He did, however, come alive in the fourth quarter, throwing for two more touchdown passes and a two-point conversion.
UNC came up a little short, but Howell’s performance helped nearly spark a feverish comeback attempt from the Tar Heels.
While North Carolina returns to Chapel Hill for two straight home games, things won’t get any easier, though. The Tar Heels host Appalachian State and No. 1 Clemson on back-to-back weeks. Keep an eye on Howell, and how he continues to perform in clutch situations.