MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — In the program's first Orange Bowl appearance, No. 13 North Carolina (8-4, 7-3 ACC) fell to No. 5 Texas A&M (9-1, 8-1 SEC), 41-27, after a fourth-quarter collapse doomed the shorthanded Tar Heels.
Defensive coordinator Jay Bateman's unit opened the game with a stout three-and-out against the Texas A&M offense before sophomore quarterback Sam Howell threw a deflating interception in North Carolina territory on UNC's first series. The Aggies marched the short 28 yards down the field and capped their second drive of the game with a nine-yard touchdown run by sophomore running back Isaiah Spiller.
Filling in for Michael Carter and Javonte Williams, who opted out of the Orange Bowl to prepare for the 2021 NFL Draft, running back British Brooks jumpstarted North Carolina's next drive with a Williams-esque run for 17 yards that eventually led to a 29-yard field goal for the Tar Heels.
From its second drive on, UNC put all its faith in the run game for the first half. By the time, the Tar Heels kicked their second field goal of the night to bring Texas A&M's lead to 7-6 with just over 11 minutes to go in the first half, Howell had more rushing attempts than completions at four and three, respectively.
On one of the team's rare first-half pass completions, North Carolina's Dazz Newsome stunned the Aggies' defense about five minutes before halftime when he bobbled, and hauled in, a diving 28-yard touchdown pass from Howell near the back corner of the end zone.
Texas A&M responded by storming 75 yards down the field in just eight plays and scoring to carry a 17-13 lead into the third quarter.
Offensive coordinator Phil Longo really let Howell off the leash to open the second half, letting the sophomore throw six of the nine plays on UNC's second drive of the third quarter that culminated with a 10-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Josh Downs in the end zone on a wheel route. The score put the Tar Heels in the lead, 20-17, and that touchdown meant Howell broke Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence's record for passing touchdowns through a sophomore season in ACC history with No. 67.
Following a Texas A&M field goal that tied the score at 20, Howell launched a deep bomb down the UNC sideline to hit Downs for the young receiver's second score of the night, this time a 75-yard touchdown on the UNC offense's first play of the fourth quarter.
Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond fired back with a touchdown run to tie the game, 27-27, and Texas A&M followed up that up with a 76-yard score on the ground to take a 7-point lead with less than four minutes to play.
The Aggies would tack on one more touchdown en route to the 41-27 victory.
Who stood out?
Downs was explosive for the Tar Heels on offense without Dyami Brown. In a pair of crucial plays, the true first-year caught his fourth and fifth career receptions for North Carolina, turning them into 85 yards and two touchdowns.
But with the majority of UNC's stars on the offensive side of the ball forgoing the game, the defense stepped up to keep the Tar Heels in the game until they grew tired by the fourth quarter.
Sophomore linebacker Eugene Asante, filling in for an NFL-bound Chazz Surratt, held his own against the Aggies, finishing with a team-high 10 total tackles in the loss.
When was it decided?
The action came down to the final frame in Hard Rock Stadium.
With the score tied at 27 early in the fourth quarter, redshirt first-year Khafre Brown dropped a long ball from Howell that would've put UNC in Texas A&M territory. Instead, North Carolina settled for a three-and-out punt, sending a visibly drained defensive unit back onto the field.
That defense couldn't hang with Texas A&M for the remainder of the game and allowed 24 points in the final quarter.
Why does it matter?
Saturday's Orange Bowl was North Carolina's first time making an appearance in the bowl and the program's first major bowl game since 1950.
Without the team's All-American tandem in the backfield, its leading receiver and leading tackler, UNC still managed to put on an admirable display for three quarters against one of the best teams of the country, leaving fans wondering what could have been if this team was at full strength.
When do they play next?
The Tar Heels tentatively plan to open their 2021 season with a home game against Georgia State on Sept. 11, but there's no shortage of obstacles that could cause that plan to change in the coming months.
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