Tar Heels take shootout over Virginia

North Carolina wide receiver Emery Simmons, left, and wide receiver Josh Downs (11) celebrate Downs’ touchdown against Virginia during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Chapel Hill, N.C., Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

North Carolina and Virginia like to call their football series “the oldest rivalry in the South”. However, the two teams put on a shootout more reminiscent of the OldWest on Saturday at Kenan Stadium.

UNC’s Sam Howell passed for 307 yards, only to fall 247 yards shy of Virginia’s Brennan Armstrong. The Cavaliers’ Billy Kemp had 106 yards receiving and finished in third place for the game by a margin of more than 75 yards. Howell rushed for 112 yards, but he could have added the production from all of Virginia’s ground game to his yardage four times and still not been the game’s leading rusher.

The Tar Heels pulled away from Virginia with a 35-point second half to beat the Cavaliers for the first time since 2016, 59-39.

It was the most points UNC has scored against Virginia since winning 59-14 in Charlottesville in 1936. The combined point total was the highest in series history. For five years, from 2014 to 2018, the Tar Heels didn’t score 59 points against Virginia and Virginia Tech combined in any season. For the three years from 2005 to 2007, they didn’t put up 59 points total in the six combined games against the Hokies and Cavaliers.

Then there are the individual achievements.

For the second straight week, Howell passed for more than 300 yards and ran for over 100, something that had happened just once in program history prior to that.

Josh Downs finished with 203 receiving yards on eight catches, scoring twice. It was the eighth highest single-game total in UNC history. Three of the top nine came with Howell as quarterback.

Ty Chandler rushed for a career-high 198 yards, scoring twice.

Virginia had a list of accomplishments almost as impressive. Dontayvion Wicks had seven catches for 183 yards and a score. Billy Kemp had two touchdowns to go with his 106 yards, and Brennan Armstrong set a school record with 554 yards passing. It also broke the record for most yards against UNC by an opponent, which had stood for 32 years, by 75 yards.

“You saw two of the best quarterbacks in the country,” Carolina coach Mack Brown said. “You knew they were going to put up points. It was fun to watch them put on an absolute show.”

UNC jumped out to a big lead, scoring touchdowns on its first three possessions and a field goal on the fourth. Late in the first half, Howell led the Tar Heels to first and goal from the five, seemingly about to go up 31-14 on Virginia.

Instead, he overthrew a receiver and got intercepted in the end zone by Fentrell Cypress II, who returned it 66 yards. Virginia scored a touchdown to cut the UNC lead to three.

“That was a 14-point swing,” Howell pointed out.

The Tar Heels then got into scoring position again before the half but missed a field goal. Virginia went 63 yards in 55 seconds to take the lead into the half.

”I was down,” Brown said. “We took a blowout, and we turned it back into a deficit. And we did it very quickly.”

While the coach was worried in the locker room at half, the players were not.

“We came together and said, ‘Look, they haven’t stopped us all game.’” Howell said.

Incredibly, UNC scored touchdowns on all five second-half possessions to overwhelm the Cavaliers.

“It’s probably better that this happened,” Brown said. “We didn’t need to blow them out at that point. We were feeling too good about ourselves. There are hard lessons in games that you can’t learn in practice.”

Brown was impressed with his team’s poise after falling behind.

“Mental toughness,” he said. “It’s hard to see a game flip like that and then flip it back. But this team is mentally tough. They flipped it and didn’t blink.”

In a game like this, if they blinked, they might miss another touchdown or two.