Sam Howell’s debut didn’t go the way we thought it would.
The North Carolina quarterback completed 17-of-32 passes for 208 yards with a tough touchdown-to-interception ratio of 1:3 in the Tar Heels’ shocking 17-10 fall to Virginia Tech on Friday evening.
This is bound to shake up some of the updated quarterback rankings coming out next, considering that Howell was at the No. 1 or No. 2 spot at the position on most lists. So what exactly went wrong?
There were definitely instances of poor decision-making and inaccuracy issues—as the stat line would suggest—but the offensive line didn’t offer Howell the best protection, either. Howell was sacked a total of six times on the evening and the offense itself disappointed overall, as UNC failed to get the ground game going as much as they wanted to.
Head coach Mack Brown’s postgame comments echoed that:
“I would think, when you don’t run the ball well and you have six sacks and he had to run for his life on some others, the thing I would say about Sam is we have to do a better job protecting him,” Brown told reporters after the game. “We’ve got to run the ball more consistently. We cannot have six sacks and him run for yards. He’s the one that turned the game around when they were trying to sack him. He just ran and made plays on his own. He’s such a competitor. You can’t expect a guy to go out there and have a great game throwing the ball when you’ve got people around you all the time. You’ve got to protect your quarterback.”
Howell noted issues with the entire unit finding a sense of rhythm, putting some of the blame on himself.
"It was pretty difficult for the offense as a whole," Howell said. "We just couldn't get into a rhythm like you said. I think our defense played well enough for us to win the football game and we had a chance to win and we just didn't make enough plays. But we certainly didn't get into a rhythm like we're used to on the offensive side of the ball so we've just got to watch the tape, self evaluate and start with me, I didn't play good enough for our team to win the game tonight so we've just got to get back to the film room and get better."
Running back Ty Chandler was the team’s leading rusher with 66 yards on 10 carries. The Tar Heels’ only touchdown of the night came on a 37-yard touchdown by wide receiver Josh Downs on a screen pass from Howell.
This is an ugly loss and Howell was far from perfect, but in regards specifically to interceptions, it didn’t look like the first two were all on him—much of his struggles stemmed from a subpar performance out of the people around him. Only the last interception looked to be totally his fault as he made an extremely poor, wacky-looking decision at the end of the play under pressure to send the ball right into the arms of Clemson defender Chamarri Conner.
And really, if the protection had been better, Howell may not have found himself in that situation to begin with.
The quarterback seems to always be first to blame in instances like these, but it’s too early to jump the gun until we see Howell consistently falter as he makes his way through the schedule this season. Sure, there is some cleaning up to do. But the moral of the story is that it is simply too early—way too early—to be writing players off this season.
Mistakes like these are highly uncharacteristic of Howell, who had the lowest point total of his career, his fewest passing yards in an FBS game since 2019 (208), and a career-high three interceptions on Friday. Howell and UNC will aim to bounce back as the Tar Heels take on the Georgia State Panthers on Sept. 11.
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