TarHeelIllustrated - Crunch Time & Howell Are A Perfect Match
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Crunch Time & Howell Are A Perfect Match

As sensational as Sam Howell has performed at UNC, he's been at his best when games have been on the line.
As sensational as Sam Howell has performed at UNC, he's been at his best when games have been on the line. (Jenna Miller, THI)

CHAPEL HILL – Some athletes just have another gear.

Acceleration, hops, strength, and drive are the more obvious examples, but so is possessing a mental toughness coaches can’t teach. Nobody really can, it’s innate.

Sam Howell has that trait. Ingrained in his football persona as if he’s been doing it for decades, yet he just turned 20 a couple of months ago. Only 21 games into his college football career at North Carolina, the sophomore quarterback has made it old hat to lead the Tar Heels from deficits late in games, often securing victories.

Occasionally, Carolina falls short, like in three-point losses at Florida State and Virginia earlier this season, though the Heels trailed both by 24 and 21 points in the second halves, respectively.

No matter the deficit the last two seasons, UNC has a chance with Howell in control of its offense.

“Sam has great composure and great poise,” UNC offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Phil Longo said. “We talk about that all the time. So, in moments like that and the reason he’s been so successful in the fourth quarter; somebody pointed out to me he’s never thrown an interception in the fourth quarter.

“He makes good decisions, he stays within the play, and I just think he’s getting better and better.”

Howell's comeback and overall performance versus Wake was one for the ages.
Howell's comeback and overall performance versus Wake was one for the ages. (USA Today)

As Longo noted, Howell hasn’t thrown an interception in the fourth quarter at UNC. Considering the Tar Heels have lost eight games by a total of 30 points in that span, and only won a handful of contests by large margins, it’s not a stretch suggesting Howell has thrown more important passes with games on the line than anyone in the nation the last two seasons.

That makes his numbers in the fourth quarter more impressive: 88-for-133 (66.2 percent) with 1,430 yards, 17 touchdowns and ZERO interceptions.

“Sam is amazing,” receiver Dyami Brown said, following last weekend’s comeback win over Wake Forest. “He’s the best out there. I wouldn’t trade him for anybody, no quarterback out there. He’s the best, and he kept us going.”

UNC trailed 45-24 midway through the third quarter when the Tar Heels started getting stops on defense and Howell put his game in overdrive. Carolina embarked on a 35-0 run en route to a 59-53 victory that saw Howell shatter the program’s single game passing mark by 55 yards by throwing for 550 along with six touchdowns. His 20-yard rushing score in the final period gave UNC the lead it wouldn’t relinquish and capping the torrid push past the Demon Deacons.

In that quarter, however, one in which UNC outscored Wake 28-8, Howell was 6-for-9 with 112 yards and two touchdowns.

In those noted losses at FSU and UVA, he was a combined 8-for-16 with 200 yards and two scores. But it’s worth noting his last three pass attempts in Tallahassee were drops, otherwise he very well would have led the Heels to a comeback win there, too.

Howell nearly pulled it off at FSU in October.
Howell nearly pulled it off at FSU in October. (ACC Media)

Carolina was down big in both games, but Howell never flinched. He kept going at it as he always does. Seemingly emotionless, teammates joke they can never tell if Howell or the team is playing well or poorly by the Indian Trail, NC, native’s demeanor. He’s just dialed in at all times.

He never changes.

“His personality, his composure, it’s poised, it’s calm,” Longo said. “So, when you’re in an adverse situation in a game, it pays great dividends because he’s able to maintain focus on what we need to do on each particular down.”

What’s particularly fascinating about Howell is there wasn’t any process in which UNC fans slowly saw this quality come out of its shell. Game one, stage one, Howell delivered.

Last season’s opener versus South Carolina saw the Tar Heels kick just three field goals through the first three quarters and they trailed the Gamecocks 20-9 into the final period. But that's when Howell took off. He connected with Dyami Brown for a 22-yard score and later with Beau Corrales for a 17-yard touchdown for the winning points in a 24-20 victory. Oh yeah, Howell ran in a two-point conversion in the quarter, too.

A week later versus Miami in front of a packed house at Kenan Stadium, the recently-turned 19-year-old did it again.

Howell's first game at UNC included a huge comeback win and some ESPN love.
Howell's first game at UNC included a huge comeback win and some ESPN love. (Jenna Miller, THI)

Carolina got he ball with 4:38 remaining and trailing the Hurricanes 25-20 when Howell went to work. He hit four of five passes on the drive, including a game-saving fourth-and-17 pass to Toe Groves, and eventually hit Dazz Newsome in the corner of the end zone for a 10-yard touchdown pass with 1:01 remaining. Another two-point conversion gave the Heels the final 28-25 margin.

Even a week later, Howell and the Heels nearly stormed back at Wake Forest before coming up short, through Howell was 7-for-10 with 120 yards with two scores and a two-point conversion pass in the fourth quarter.

He did it again before falling short at Pittsburgh, too. And there are many other outstanding late-game performances by Howell, who is 26-for-40 with 483 yards and five touchdowns in the final quarter this season.

Not one to speak much about himself, Howell did allow for a brief moment of acknowledgement when asked after the Wake game if he was in a zone during the comeback.

"I think you could say that,” he replied, before talking only about his teammates for the rest of the response.

Howell just isn’t going to boast, it’s just not in his makeup. But a knack for late-game theater and success very few can match is in his DNA, as the last 21 games have clearly revealed.