By GEORGE HENRY
ATLANTA (AP) — Sam Howell had North Carolina’s offense in a groove, dominating time of possession, scoring easily and consistently moving the chains on third down.
“I definitely love driving down the field,” he said. “You’re just taking the heart out of the defense. You’re just wearing them out all down the field. It’s one of the best things about this game.”
Howell threw four touchdown passes and the Tar Heels suffered no letdown from last week’s narrow loss to the nation’s No. 1 team, snapping a three-game losing streak with a 38-22 victory over Georgia Tech on Saturday.
“Basically this was a test for us to see if, after we spent so much energy against Clemson, we would come back and do it again?” coach Mack Brown said. “I thought they played hard tonight. They played with passion tonight and did a lot of good things.”
Howell, a freshman who set several career highs, completed 33 of 51 passes for 376 yards as North Carolina piled up a season-high 587 yards of total offense and Javonte Williams ran 20 times for a career-high 144 yards and a TD.
The Tar Heels (3-3, 2-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) won convincingly, going up 24-7 early in the final period on Howell’s 18-yard TD pass to Dyami Brown in the left corner of the end zone and 31-15 on the next possession when tight end Garrett Walston caught a short pass near the right sideline and scored a 16-yard touchdown.
Georgia Tech (1-4, 0-2) has lost three straight with the nation’s lowest-scoring offense and had gone seven quarters without a touchdown before cutting the lead to 17-7 in the third quarter.
Redshirt freshman James Graham made his first career start for the Yellow Jackets and shared early snaps with running QB Tobias Oliver. The offense took a big blow early in the second when Graham threw a deep interception to Don Chapman at the Tar Heel 32. North Carolina scored its first touchdown on the ensuing drive.
“I had a few reads that I wish I could get back and a few throws that I shouldn’t have made, but it felt pretty good overall coming out and starting,” Graham said after completing 11 of 24 passes for 171 yards.
North Carolina led 17-0 at halftime on Noah Ruggles’ 32-yard field goal, Dazz Newsome’s 20-yard touchdown catch and Beau Corrales’ 6-yard TD reception. Outside linebacker Tomon Fox had a sack in the second and nose tackle Aaron Crawford had a sack in the third.
Howell loved how the Tar Heels converted 11 of 19 third downs and still have plenty of room to grow.
“I think we’re starting to build our identity as an offense,” he said. “There’s still a lot of stuff we can clean up. We could’ve had a lot more points. We’ve just got to clean some stuff up.”
North Carolina: The Tar Heels, who were coming off a one point loss to then-No. 1 Clemson, still have plenty to clean up. Newsome, Rontavius Green and Brown dropped long passes near the goal line in the first half, and there were more hiccups in the third. A penalty pushed the offense back, and Ruggles missed wide right on a 39-yarder. Brown dropped an easy pass on the next drive and the Tar Heels went three-and-out, but the blowout was sealed when Javonte Williams’ 3-yard run made it 38-15.
Georgia Tech: The Jackets had won nine of the last 10 home games in the 40-year series, but didn’t give the announced crowd of 45,044 much to cheer about other than Graham’s 28-yard TD pass to Malachi Carter and Jordan Mason’s 2-yard TD run in the fourth that cut the lead to 24-15 on a two-point conversion. Georgia Tech has yet to score in the first quarter this season, but it put up 22 points and 125 yards rushing in the second half.
“We started to find a little bit of rhythm and had some explosive plays,” first-year coach Geoff Collins said. “The guys kept battling and cut it down in the fourth quarter and made it a really good game.”
The Tar Heels starting strong safety Cam’Ron Kelly had surgery for a torn ACL Thursday and will miss the rest of the season. Kelly was injured in the closing minutes against Clemson. It got worse for the secondary in the first quarter when starting cornerback Trey Morrison left with an upper body injury and was done for the day.
Georgia Tech wore a new color scheme for the first time, an onyx gray uniform to raise awareness for Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. Four team captains were dressed in gold capes for the pregame coin toss, and during two early timeouts, Georgia Tech introduced children recovering from serious illnesses. The kids and their young siblings also wore gold capes. Collins wore a cape during the pregame walk to the field.
North Carolina is off next week and visits Virginia Tech on Oct. 19.
Georgia Tech visits Duke next week and Miami on Oct. 19.