His first two drives were quite the example. The quarterback hit Antoine Green for 39 yards to set up a field goal to open the game. On his next possession, he found Dyami Brown wide open downfield for a 62-yard touchdown.
Just like that, North Carolina was up 10-0. A Javonte Williams rushing touchdown later boosted the lead to 17-3. But Miami dinked and dunked its way back into the game, with quarterback Jarren Williams spreading the ball out and leading the Hurricanes on methodical drives.
The Tar Heels mustered just five total yards in the second quarter and entered halftime barely holding onto a 17-13 lead. And when Miami scored consecutive touchdowns in the second half, both on lengthy drives aided in part by UNC’s struggling offense, it looked all too familiar.
“The whole team and staff made a bunch of mistakes,” head coach Mack Brown said.
North Carolina trailed 25-20 when he took the field with 4:38 left. Miami had its first lead of the game, and Howell’s casual first-quarter flicks to open receivers seemed a distant memory. But in the words of left tackle Charlie Heck, his quarterback “oozes confidence.”
“You believe in a guy like that,” Heck said.
Javonte Williams ripped off a 22-yard run and Howell found Brown, who finished with 80 yards, for a quick slant. The offense was humming at Miami’s 49-yard line.
But consecutive sacks backed up the Tar Heels into a worst-case scenario fourth and 17. Brown called UNC’s final timeout to stop the clock and talk the decision over with offensive coordinator Phil Longo.
“We felt like after having two straight sacks, our odds for a fourth and 17 were better than punting and stopping (Miami),” Brown said. “So it looked really bad or awful.”
He opted for the “really bad” option. Safety Myles Dorn watched from the sideline as Howell and the offense marched out, their backs against the wall for one last chance. Was he nervous?
“That was the crazy part … I kind of knew he was going to get it,” Dorn said of Howell. “I didn’t even put my helmet on.”
The offensive line gave Howell time, and he stepped up in the pocket and delivered a clutch strike to Rontavius “Toe” Groves on a double-move out route for 20 yards. First down. Still alive. Somehow.
“Today, when I saw him step up in the pocket and make that throw to Toe coming across the middle, I was like, ‘Yo, he’s really like that,’” Javonte Williams said. “I feel like sky’s the limit for Sam.”
Howell found Beau Corrales for 12 yards, then ran for four more. A nine-yard run by Michael Carter set up the moment that will live on many a highlight reel. Howell dropped back on first and goal, surveyed the field and saw his first read, Newsome, sell a fake to the inside and break free toward the corner.
“He was nowhere to be found,” Newsome said of his defender. “And Sam put it on the money.”
Newsome dragged his toes to score on the play, and Carter added a two-point conversion. Miami had a chance to tie it with seconds remaining, but kicker Bubba Baxa missed wide left from 49 yards after a valiant final drive. Pandemonium ensued.
“We were excited,” Dyami Brown said. “So excited. It was like a party.”
It’s a feeling the players missed. And one they relished Saturday night. Howell, the quiet architect behind it all, who finished 16 of 24 for 274 yards and two touchdowns, couldn’t help but smile when asked about it.
“I’ve never seen Kenan Stadium like this,” he said.
Based on what he's doing for UNC right now, Howell should get used to seeing it like that more often.
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