CHARLOTTE — South Carolina entered the Duke’s Mayo Bowl without their leading rusher and starting quarterback. It turned out the Gamecocks didn’t need them, cruising to a 38-21 win over North Carolina in Charlotte.
UNC had quarterback Sam Howell, who opted to play in the bowl a year after four Tar Heels stars sat out the Orange Bowl loss. It was South Carolina who struggled with attrition. Running back ZaQuandre White and edge rusher Kingsley Enagbare opted out of the game to prepare for the NFL Draft, while Jason Brown transferred following the regular season.
That left South Carolina alternating quarterbacks every play, rotating between third-stringer Zeb Noland and Dakeron Joyner, a wide receiver who hadn’t thrown a pass in two years.
The duo each threw a touchdown pass in the first eight minutes of the game, with Joyner hitting Jaheim Bell for 69 yards and Noland hitting Bell for 66.
South Carolina added a field goal in the first quarter and never looked back.
“We were down 18-0, and we’d run 11 offensive plays,” said UNC coach Mack Brown.
With two passing touchdowns in the first six offensive snaps, South Carolina then relied on its running game to control the game.
“They were running the ball at will,” said Brown. “The most disappointing thing, which is what I live with, is that they rushed for 301 yards and we rushed for 128.”
That allowed the Gamecocks to control the clock.
“The second thing (after stopping the run) is to make third downs,” Brown said. “Stay on the field. They were getting seven to eight yards on first down, which made it easy on third. They were 6 of 11 converting them. We were 1 of 11. When you can’t do those two things, you’re going to lose. That’s 100%. That’s football. When I was with ESPN, they said, ‘Don’t just say that. It’s too simple.’ It’s facts. It’s real.”
South Carolina controlled the ball for 39 minutes to UNC’s 21. Joyner finished a perfect 9 of 9 for 160 yards and the game’s MVP award. Bell had five catches for 159 yards, while Kevin Harris rushed for 182 yards and a score.
Brown took a hard-line approach toward the outcome, promising that changes would be made.
“A lot of times, you won’t fix things as much when things are great,” he said. “We had a tough time today. … This will be better for our program than if we’d won 45-0. Everybody would have been happy. We wouldn’t have fixed as many things.”
Brown wouldn’t say if one of the fixes would be a change to the coaching staff, particularly defensive coordinator Jay Bateman, who returned 10 starters to a unit that struggled much of the season, including Thursday’s bowl.
“We can dissect this thing 1,000 ways if we want to,” Brown said. “They rushed it a lot better than we did and stayed on the field a lot longer. We’ve got to get more leaders. We’ve got to get more people that understand they’ve got to be ready to go.”
In perhaps his final game at UNC, Howell completed 12 of 20 passes for 205 yards and a touchdown. He was also sacked four times and under pressure much of the afternoon.
The Tar Heels finished the season at 6-7, their first losing campaign since 2018, the year before Brown arrived. It’s the first losing season with Brown as coach since 1989, the second year of his first stint as UNC coach.