North Carolina and Virginia like to call their football series “the South’s oldest rivalry.” However, the two teams staged a shootout more reminiscent of the OldWest on Saturday at Kenan Stadium.
Sam Howell of UNC had 307 yards, only to fall to 247 yards from Brennan Armstrong of Virginia. Billy Kemp of the Cavaliers tallied 106 receiving yards and was third in the game with a margin of over 75 yards. Howell rushed for 112 yards, but he could have added Virginia’s entire rushing production to his distance four times and still wouldn’t have been the best rusher in the game.
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.
That’s the most points UNC has scored against Virginia since winning 59-14 at Charlottesville in 1936. The combined points total was the highest in series history. For five years, from 2014 to 2018, the Tar Heels did not score 59 points against Virginia and Virginia Tech combined in any season. For the three years from 2005 to 2007, they did not accumulate 59 points in total in the six games combined against the Hokies and Cavaliers.
Then there are the individual achievements.
For the second week in a row, Howell rushed over 300 yards and ran over 100 yards, something that had only happened once in program history before that.
Josh Downs finished with 203 yards on eight receptions, scoring twice. It was the eighth-highest game total in UNC history. Three of the first nine came with Howell as a quarterback.
Ty Chandler rushed for a career-high 198 yards, scoring twice.
Virginia had an almost equally impressive list of accomplishments. Dontayvion Wicks had seven catches for 183 yards and one score. Billy Kemp had two touchdowns to make with his 106 yards, and Brennan Armstrong set a school record with 554 passing yards. He also broke the record for most yards against UNC by an opponent, who had held up for 32 years, by 75 yards.
“You’ve seen two of the best quarterbacks in the country,” said Carolina coach Mack Brown. “You knew they were going to score points. It was fun to see them put on an absolute show.
UNC took a big lead, scoring touchdowns on their first three possessions and a field goal on the fourth. At the end of the first half, Howell led the Tar Heels to first and one goal of five, seemingly poised to go up 31-14 over Virginia.
Instead, he knocked down a wide receiver and was intercepted in the end zone by Fentrell Cypress II, who sent him back for 66 yards. Virginia scored a touchdown to reduce UNC’s lead to three.
“It was a 14 point swing,” said Howell.
The Tar Heels then returned to scoring position before half-time, but missed a basket. Virginia drove 63 yards in 55 seconds to take the lead in the half.
“I was down,” Brown said. “We had a rash and turned it into a deficit. And we did it very quickly.
While the coach worried in the locker room halfway through, the players weren’t.
“We got together and said, ‘Look, they didn’t stop us the whole game. Said Howell.
Incredibly, UNC scored touchdowns on all five second-half possessions to overwhelm the Cavaliers.
“It’s probably better than that to happen,” Brown said. “We didn’t need to blow them up then. We felt too good about ourselves. There are hard lessons in games that you cannot learn in practice.
Brown was impressed with his team’s balance 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 turned it over and didn’t blink.
In a match like this, if they blinked, they might miss another touchdown or two.