The evidence that No. 21 North Carolina’s running game was ready for Saturday’s breakout performance in their 59-39 win over Virginia was right there for everyone to notice.
It wasn’t recognized as a turning point because the opponent was Georgia State, and it happened with UNC quarterback Sam Howell as the leading rusher.
The Tar Heels, however, took notice.
Maybe Virginia should have too.
The key to Carolina’s season-high 392 rushing yards against the Cavaliers actually began in its second half win against Georgia State. Carolina had just 37 rushing yards in the first half before gaining 164 yards on the ground in the second half of its 59-17 win over the Panthers. The Heels were powered by five rushes of more than 10 yards, including Howell’s 62-yard touchdown run.
“If you go back and look at it, they blocked this way and ran the ball like this the second half last week,” UNC coach Mack Brown said. “And nobody counted it because it was Georgia State. But it was much better in the second half. I thought that was the first time we had an offense that we wanted to have and it continued (against Virginia.)“
It continued despite the Heels starting their third different group on the offensive line. Against Virginia Tech, center Brian Anderson didn’t start. Against Georgia State, it was left guard Josh Ezeudu. Against UVA, Anderson, Ezeudu and right tackle Jordan Tucker all began the game on the bench.
It didn’t matter who was up front the way running back Ty Chandler, the graduate transfer from Tennessee, finally found his rhythm. Chandler logged a career-high 198 yards rushing and two scores on 20 carries.
“Ty Chandler is getting more used to this offense and and he hit a lot of creases tonight that we might have missed up until the second half last week,” Brown said.
Chandler had entered the game against UVA with just 124 rushing yards on 25 carries. Howell actually led the team in rushing with 139 yards. That’s no longer the case after Saturday, and the way Chandler looked against the Cavaliers, he’s not going to give the team lead up anytime soon.
Chandler said he had more patience and let things develop for him this week after watching video from the Georgia State game. The difference was immediate against the Wahoos. Chandler’s first two carries went for 17 yards and 28 yards in back-to-back plays.
“I was focusing on the little things when it came came down to it,” Chandler said. “Focusing on point of attack, my footwork, my eyes/vision, stuff like that. It’s just the little things that helped me succeed a lot this week. But we got to keep getting better, keep building on those things and keep progressing for next week.”
Right guard Marcus McKethan, who is UNC’s lone offensive lineman to start every game at the same spot, said the communication was better upfront. But he added Chandler was better too.
“I definitely saw a different side of Ty,” McKethan said. “He definitely seemed more juiced and energetic than ever before so I’m excited to see it.”
The Tar Heels needed a rushing performance like this keep from becoming a one-dimensional offense that has to pass all the time. Being able to run the ball unlocks an entirely different set of possibilities for the Heels and it helps that everyone who had a carry had some success.
Howell set a new career-high with 112 rushing yards including a 20-yard run. Freshman Caleb Hood rushed for 66 yards -- including a 25-yarder -- and his first career touchdown. Josh Henderson even came from off the bench and ripped off a 14-yard run.
“It’s probably the second best running performance I’ve seen us have since I’ve been here, which is unbelievable,” Howell said.
The best outing, of course, was last year’s win at Miami, in which the Heels ran up 554 rushing yards. Like that win over the Hurricanes, opposing defenses, starting with Georgia Tech next week, are going to have to respect Carolina’s rushing attack.
“Now people are going to have to start stacking in the box,” said Brown, of the run setting up UNC’s passing game. “And it’s going to give us opportunities outside again.”
And Carolina’s offense seems like it is off and running.