For the first time since the 2019 season, Chapel Hill finally saw a typical night of North Carolina football — on the field and in the stands.
Though the team played in front of a live crowd in 2020, it was not in a full-capacity stadium. But on Saturday, a loaded student section cheered on the No. 24 Tar Heels as they came on the field with “All Of The Lights” by Kanye West playing. The marching band and dance team put on performances before kickoff for a massive crowd in Kenan Memorial Stadium.
Everything about the night was reminiscent of a 2019 home showing.
“It was a great time,” senior defensive lineman Raymond Vohasek said. “I love playing at Kenan and I think we have a really big home field advantage. I think the fans were great tonight and I think it’s gonna be great through the season.”
Scoring just 10 points in their season debut against Virginia Tech on Sept. 3, a strong step down from their 41.67 average a year ago, the Tar Heels came home and posted a resounding 59 points against Georgia State, winning 59-17.
It began with the first two drives of the first quarter, with North Carolina scoring touchdowns on both possessions — first a 22-yard run from junior quarterback Sam Howell, then Howell finding senior receiver Antoine Green on a 57-yard touchdown throw.
“Based off of last week, we didn’t have too many deep shots at all," Green said. "And I just feel like it’s something we can build off of as an offense.”
From there, UNC began to resurrect its passing attack. Four different receivers caught passes in the first quarter, making plays for the team and helping advance the ball down the field. Once they got in rhythm, the receiving corps was able to post gains of 10-plus yards with ease.
Howell had a tremendous game Saturday, accounting for five total touchdowns, throwing for 352 yards and running for 104 yards. The last UNC player to throw for 300 yards or more and pick up 100-plus rushing yards in the same game was Marquise Williams in 2014.
“Marquise was a great player, he’s my favorite Tar Heel ever,” Howell said. “I felt like myself out there today. I had a lot of help around me. My teammates had a really good game."
In the receiving game, North Carolina offered a well-rounded performance, especially compared to last week’s game.
Sophomore receiver Josh Downs, who carried much of the load against Virginia Tech, delivered another strong performance on Saturday, catching 8 passes for 73 yards and a score. Junior receiver Emery Simmons recorded 73 yards on three receptions, adding a touchdown to the stat sheet as well. Green gave a strong performance of his own, racking up 117 yards on three catches to go along with his TD reception early in the game.
“It definitely helps the offense build momentum,” Green said. “We feed off of each other’s energy. Any time somebody made a catch, like when Emery scored, we all celebrated as one. And when Josh scored we all celebrated as one.”
North Carolina did not get much consistency in the run game, excluding Howell’s career-long 62-yard touchdown in the third quarter. The team did record four touchdowns on the ground, however, with senior British Brooks and graduate transfer Ty Chandler scoring at the goal line.
Head coach Mack Brown identified the run game as an area of improvement for UNC.
“I think right now it’s running the ball and making sure we’re solid in pass protection as we get back into league play are the two most critical things that we’ve got to analyze,” Brown said.
As the team returns home next week against Virginia, North Carolina will look to bring back that familiar feeling of a potent offense and a strong home-field advantage.
“It’s just a blessing to be where we are and it’s definitely awesome to be out there in Kenan Stadium," Howell said. "I thought that our fans were awesome tonight and we’re going to need them to be awesome when Virginia comes here next week.”
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