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Saturday May 28th

Offensive line sputters in UNC football's loss to South Carolina in Duke's Mayo Bowl

Junior quarterback Sam Howell (7) carries the ball at the Duke's Mayo Bowl against South Carolina at the Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte on Dec. 30, 2021. UNC lost 21-38.
Buy Photos Junior quarterback Sam Howell (7) carries the ball at the Duke's Mayo Bowl against South Carolina at the Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte on Dec. 30, 2021. UNC lost 21-38.

A wall of mayonnaise might've been stronger than UNC's offensive line in the team's 38-21 loss to South Carolina in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl on Thursday at Bank of America Stadium.

And the offensive line has been this way for most of the season. The Tar Heels allowed the fourth most sacks in the FBS entering bowl season with 45, despite being a unit that returned every starter from last year's team, that blocked for two 1,000-yard rushers and reached the Orange Bowl.

The Duke’s Mayo Bowl was a cauldron of the offensive problems that gave UNC fits all season long. Slow starts hampered the Tar Heels throughout the season — and Thursday was no different.

It took UNC four offensive possessions to score. By then, South Carolina scored 18 points, and it was still the first quarter. As a result, North Carolina was forced to pass more often rather than run, which allowed the Gamecock defense to relentlessly attack junior quarterback Sam Howell.

“We got down early, so we got away from running the ball,” Howell said. “We knew how South Carolina plays offense, where they slow the game down. We tried to play two-minute mode, get some quick passes out there, try to keep time on the clock and we struggled to get a rhythm going all day long.”

After losing four explosive wide receivers and running backs to the NFL, the offensive struggles against South Carolina were a microcosm of the entire season. The Gamecocks had two 60-plus-yard passing touchdowns on their first two drives and had multiple big plays, while the Tar Heels, on the other hand, were unable to create momentum.

“Our big deal is stopping teams' surge and that happened early on in the game, they came out hot,” graduate linebacker Tomon Fox said. “It’s a whole mindset to come out there with more energy than the other team.”

Previously, Howell had been able to adjust to the increased pressure, but against the Gamecocks, he scrambled around in the pocket to try to avoid South Carolina defenders. Despite his efforts to avoid the pressure, the Gamecocks sacked him four times.

Howell was forced to run more this season, gaining 1,137 rushing yards. But at the same time, he lost 309 yards due to sacks. Despite running for 41 yards against the Gamecocks, he only ended up with three net rushing yards because of losing yards in the backfield.

As a projected early-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, Howell will have to decide between entering the professional ranks or returning to Chapel Hill for his senior season. 

If this was Howell’s swan song, he put his body on the line to win the game, just as he has throughout his UNC career. And what better place to finish his career than at the same place and against the same team that he started his career as a first-year?

“He’s such a warrior, he’s such a competitor,” head coach Mack Brown said of the quarterback. “We’d obviously love to have him back but if not, some pro team is going to be lucky to get a guy who loves football and competes at the highest level.”

@noahmnroe

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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