North Carolina actually started the game on a roll — a 75 yard kick return and one slant pass from Howell to Dazz Newsome was all it took to get UNC its first touchdown of the game. It took just 17 seconds.
It looked like the Tar Heels were taking this first half thing seriously, a week after admitting to not getting up against Wake Forest. But the Mountaineers carved through UNC on their first drive, only staying out of the end zone after a sack by Dominique Ross and settling for a field goal.
Then, a three-and-out for UNC, and another field goal for Appalachian State. After that, Howell got sacked, fumbled, and defensive lineman Demetrius Taylor scooped the ball up and ran it back from a score.
"I think their defense played a good game," Howell said. "We just got into a hole early, and we can't do that against good teams like this."
Players and coaches mentioned how the mood around the team had changed during the game. The team started out ready to play, but 13 straight points from the opposition sapped UNC's energy.
"I said (to the team), 'It seems like when bad things happen, you do this,'" Brown said, slumping his shoulders. "And you get down. And that doesn't work. It doesn't work in life and it doesn't work in football."
It didn't help that Howell threw his first career interception in the second quarter, and the Mountaineers scored again four plays later. At halftime, the Tar Heels trailed 27-17.
Junior linebacker Tomon Fox noticed the lack of energy: "We knew something bad was about to happen, so we tried to fix it then and there on the sideline."
It didn't happen until after halftime, when the Tar Heels showed signs of life and rallied behind impressive plays from their young quarterback. The true first-year threw three touchdowns on Saturday, the first UNC player to do that since Nathan Elliot in 2017.
Howell also lead his third 95-plus yard touchdown drive this season, this time in the third quarter to cut the Mountaineer lead to just three.
"Everybody on the team has faith in Sam," junior wide receiver Beau Corrales said. "We all know that he can do it, we all know the player he is … In last-minute situations, he's got ice in his veins."
Still, Howell can't do it alone.
"At the end of the day, he's a true freshman quarterback," Corrales said. "We can't put everything on him and expect him to do everything for everyone. We gotta be able to come together as a team and play for each other."
Howell, like the rest of the team, was inconsistent. If not for his two early turnovers, it's likely his team walks away with a win. There was also an opportunity to move the chains earlier in the fourth quarter on a third-and-9 pass to Dyami Brown that Howell threw incomplete.
"I just gotta clean up the mistakes I made," Howell said. "I turned the ball over, it ended up costing us this game, so I just gotta go back and learn from my mistakes."
His inconsistencies mirror those of the team. So it goes when so much is asked of a player with only four games to his name.
Through those four games, it still isn't clear what this UNC team is. It has too many highs and lows in any one game for anyone to know for sure. The Tar Heels live and breathe through their young quarterback, but for Brown, that isn't enough.
"(The team needs to) play consistently well, instead of having great plays and bad plays," Brown said. "We've got to just get to a point where we are who we are. It doesn't matter who we play, we play the same way every play."
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