North Carolina appeared to have all the players it needed when Sam Howell found Josh Downs for a 75-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
Despite missing four of its best players, all who opted out to prepare for the NFL Draft, the Tar Heels suddenly found themselves with a fourth-quarter lead against No. 5 Texas A&M in the Orange Bowl.
The big play was Howell’s third touchdown pass of the game, giving him 68 for his career. That was two more than Trevor Lawrence’s previous record for most touchdown passes in his first two years. It also tied Darian Durant’s UNC career mark.
The play stood as the high point in Carolina’s biggest bowl game in 70 years.
The Aggies scored the final 21 points of the game to defeat the Tar Heels, 41-27.
UNC was playing in the Orange Bowl for the first time in school history, and its first major bowl game since making three trips to the Cotton and Sugar Bowls in a four-year stretch that ended in 1950.
The No. 13 Tar Heels were without running backs Michael Carter and Javonte Williams, wide receiver Dyami Brown and linebacker Chazz Surratt, who all opted out of the game to prepare for the NFL Draft.
The Heels showed they had plenty of talent left, however, as quarterback Sam Howell threw three touchdown passes — one to senior Dazz Newsome and two to the freshman Downs.
“Give Sam credit,” UNC coach Mack Brown said. “He had a bunch of new players around him, didn’t have his run game, and he still gave us a chance to win.”
That chance faded as the Carolina defense appeared to tire down the stretch. A&M put together three straight touchdown drives, taking the lead on a 76-yard sideline run by Devon Achane, who gained all 140 of his rushing yards in the second half.
“I think they wore us down,” Brown said. “We hung in there, but we missed tackles. It was the same players for them and for us, but we had trouble moving it in the fourth quarter, and we had trouble stopping them.”
1. Downs had four catches for 91 yards to help make up for the loss of Dyami Brown. Brown’s younger brother Khadry also added two catches for 40 yards. British Brooks had 53 yards on 15 carries to lead a running game that lost 87% of its production when Carter and Williams opted out.
At linebacker, Eugene Asante filled in for Surratt and led the team with 10 tackles, seven solo, but he also had several missed tackles.
2. The Tar Heels got the ball trailing by seven with 3:44 left and had a chance to go on a game-tying drive. Brooks opened things with a nine-yard rush, but the Tar Heels couldn’t get the final yard on the next three plays. Brooks was stopped on third-and-1, and Josh Henderson came up short on fourth-and-1.
“If you’re going to be a top-five team, you’ve got to make third-and-1. You’ve got to make fourth-and-1,” Mack Brown said.
3. The young players on offense took awhile to find their footing. Howell threw an early interception deep in UNC territory that set up Texas A&M’s first touchdown. Mack Brown also found himself uncharacteristically using timeouts early in the game.
“I hate using timeouts,” he said. “But we had trouble lining up. I’d wait for them to line up right, and I’d wait and wait. Then, finally, I had to take them.”
Number to Know
50 — Yards gained by UNC quarterback Sam Howell on the ground. He was sacked four times, which caused his net rushing yardage to be 25, but that was still good enough for second on the team. Coach Mack Brown said that the coaching staff put in run calls for Howell to help make up for missing their top two running backs in the game.
They Said It
“I told them in the locker room I’m proud that they got us here, and next time we get here, we’ve got to win.”
— Tar Heels coach Mack Brown
Player of the Game
Dazz Newsome, Tar Heels — Unlike his several of his teammates, the senior wide receiver decided to play in his final college game. Newsome had a game-high six catches for 68 yards, including a sliding, juggling catch in the end zone to give Carolina its first lead of the game. He also returned a punt 23 yards to give UNC a drive start at midfield.
The loss capped an absolutely brutal bowl season for the ACC. The conference went winless in six bowl games, with Notre Dame and Clemson both losing in the College Football Playoff, Miami in the Cheez-It Bowl, NC State in the Gator and Wake Forest in the Duke’s Mayo. Four of the six lost by at least 14 points. Five gave up at least 30 points, and three gave up 40-plus.
It’s the first winless bowl season for the ACC since it went 0-2 in 1983 and the worst bowl record for a Power Five conference in bowl history. Only the MAC, which went 0-6 in 2016, and Conference USA, which went 0-6 this year, matched the ACC’s futility.