UNC rebounds from Week 1 loss with 59-17 romp over Georgia State

North Carolina's Trey Morrison (4) celebrates before the start of the fourth quarter against Georgia State at Kenan Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, in Chapel Hill, N.C. (Grant Halverson/Getty Images/TNS)
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C.L. Brown The News & Observer (TNS)

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — North Carolina looked a lot more like the team that was ranked No. 10 in the preseason in its home opener on Saturday, scoring touchdowns on its first two drives and cruising to a 59-17 win over Georgia State in Kenan Stadium.

The Tar Heels (1-1) overwhelmed the Panthers (0-2) with big plays in the passing game. UNC quarterback Sam Howell bounced back after struggling in the loss to Virginia Tech to throw for 352 yards with three touchdowns.

Howell also showed off his legs, adding 104 rushing yards that included a 62-yard touchdown run. Howell became just the second quarterback in school history to throw for more than 300 yards and rush for more than 100 yards in the same game. Marquis Williams was the first to accomplish the feat against Notre Dame in 2014.

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No. 24 UNC had nine passing plays for more than 15 yards and even the reserves got a piece of the action. Backup quarterback Jacolby Criswell found tight end Bryson Nesbit open, and after he sidestepped a defender he completed the 47-yard touchdown strike in the fourth quarter.

The Heels put to rest some of the concerns that arouse in their opening loss. The offensive line allowed just two sacks and Howell generally had more time to look downfield to complete long passes.

Defensively, Carolina got off to a quick start and set the tone for the game. It held the Panthers to just 57 total yards during their first four possessions. That included a drive that started at the UNC 19 after a Howell fumble and the Heels limited GSU to just a field goal.

Offsides

Just as starting center Brian Anderson returned to the lineup, the Heels were without starting left guard Josh Ezeudu, who was out with a lower body injury. While it didn’t lead to UNC allowing six sacks as it did in the opener, establishing the running game was again problematic. Midway through the third quarter, the Heels were averaging just 2.8 yards per carry. Thanks in part to Howell’s 62-yard touchdown run that followed, they were able to pad their final total to 201 rushing yards. But it looked better on paper than it did live.

Touchdown

Carolina got the big plays it was looking for in its passing game. On its first two scoring drives, Howell connected with receiver Antoine Green for gains of 31 and 57 yards, the latter resulting in a touchdown. Howell also had a 41-yard strike to Emery Simmons and a 29-yarder to Green in the third quarter. It was quite the contrast from the Heels’ loss to Virginia Tech in the opener when they only completed one pass thrown more than 20-yards down the field.

ICYMI

With so many jersey numbers that share one offensive player and one defensive player, what happens with both players are on the field for special teams? Carolina used a pair of nameless jerseys. When Power Echols and Josh Henderson, who both wear No. 23, were on kickoff coverage, Echols put on No. 31 over his regular jersey. The same happened when Josh Downs and RaRa Dillworth, who both wear No. 11 and are both on punt returns, took the field together. Dillworth put on No. 45 for the plays.

Key numbers

— 4: UNC tight end Komari Morales entered the game with just three career receptions. He had three catches on the same drive and ended with four for 42 yards.

— 10: Howell’s 352 passing yards marked the 10th time he has thrown for more than 300 yards in a game. He did it six times as a freshman and only three times last season.

— 271: Georgia State’s total offensive yards, which gave the Heels’ defense consecutive games of keeping their opponent to fewer than 300 total yards. UNC allowed Virginia Tech just 296 total yards last week.

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