With fans packed in the student section of Kenan Stadium shaking their Carolina Blue poms poms, the North Carolina football team was looking to finally put their second home game out of reach.
Junior quarterback Sam Howell took the ball and handed it to graduate transfer Ty Chandler, who outraced the pursuing Virginia defenders into the end zone for his second touchdown of the game.
The crowd erupted. And for the first time this season, so did the running game.
The touchdown capped off a career day for Chandler and gave fans hope that UNC would reestablish its dominant ground game from a year ago and get its season back on track.
It was the Tar Heels' first taste this year of a fully-balanced aerial and ground attack, which translated into a 59-39 drubbing over the Cavaliers.
North Carolina came into Saturday's game with Howell as its leading rusher and with none of the running backs establishing any sort of a rhythm.
North Carolina flipped the script against Virginia on Saturday, totaling 392 yards rushing. The Tar Heels leaned on their once dormant run game to fuel an offensive explosion.
Chandler only had 124 yards combined in his first two games, but that did not deter him coming into a crucial conference battle.
“I went up to Ty Chandler before the game and I was like ‘We gonna run that thing?’ and he said ‘We’re gonna run that thing a lot tonight,’” sophomore receiver Josh Downs said. “So I knew it was going to hit tonight.”
Chandler had an extra burst that was notably absent in his opening two games as a Tar Heel, torching the Cavaliers for 198 yards on the ground. He bounced off defenders and fought for every yard, generating runs reminiscent of those made by Michael Carter and Javonte Williams last season.
“I feel like we were able to execute tonight and control the line of scrimmage,” Chandler said “And it paid off.”
He temporarily silenced the doubters of UNC’s new look running back room by showcasing the elite athleticism he boasted while at Tennessee.
“With Ty and the offensive line, they got tired of hearing they weren’t tough and they got tired of hearing they weren’t good,” head coach Mack Brown said.
Senior guard Marcus McKethan and the rest of the offensive lineman came up just as big, despite facing adversity before this game.
Three starters struggled with injuries throughout the past week of practices and were unable to begin the game with the first unit. But the group put together its best performance of the season, clearing up the necessary holes and giving Howell – who accounted for 112 of the team’s rushing yards – time to scramble out of the pocket when necessary.
Along with Chandler and Howell, first-year Caleb Hood also had his best rushing game of the season, ending the game with 66 yards on nine carries with a touchdown. Junior Josh Henderson also broke a big run off in the waning minutes to add 16 to the final rushing total.
“We love our backs,” McKethan said. “We’re definitely trying to show them some more love.”
Thanks to the threat of the potent run game, the Tar Heels were finally able to rekindle the deep ball that was such a big element of last season’s offensive scheme.
And it was Chandler who led the way, showing everyone his full potential.
Now he’ll have to prove it’s sustainable as the Tar Heels continue on with conference play.
“It just all came together tonight and everything was clicking,” Chandler said. “We know we’ve been putting the work in and to go out there and see it pay off is amazing.”
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.