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Tar Heels may recover from this shocking loss, but Sam Howell’s Heisman hopes will not

The night started with “Enter Sandman.” It ended with Sam Howell’s early exit from the Heisman Trophy race and a new nightmare that will interrupt North Carolina’s sleep for weeks and months, if not years.

All the hopes and hype that had come to surround Howell and the Tar Heels evaporated in a hurry Friday night, the last final chance of any heroics falling to the ground with the last intercepted Howell pass with 37 seconds to play.

It’s always a front-runner’s race, and Howell’s candidacy is off to the worst start since Utah State sent out Jordan Love notepads and Love promptly threw three picks in a loss at Wake Forest and wasn’t seen again until he inadvertently ruined Aaron Rodgers’ summer.

A season of promise was punctured at the very first opportunity, a team with a penchant for fourth-quarter comebacks unable to start this campaign with another one.

The Tar Heels are far from the first team to see its season dashed upon the stone walls of Lane Stadium, it has just rarely happened this early, this unexpectedly and this disappointingly.

It wasn’t just that North Carolina lost, or that even after the Tar Heels rebounded from a dismal first half, they were never in control of the game, not for even a second in a 17-10 loss. It was how badly they were dominated on the line of scrimmage, how perpetually frazzled Howell was, how collectively unprepared they appeared for both the opponent and the atmosphere.

By the time they recovered their composure, it was already too late.

The Tar Heels will still have chances to turn their season around — there is indeed a great deal of football yet to play, and the first weekend of college football throws out more baffling results than any other — but whatever chances Howell had of winning the Heisman were trampled under the feet of the Virginia Tech students who stormed the field to celebrate the upset.

Harassed and hassled, Howell was perpetually on the run and under pressure, victimized by an offensive line that was as inept as it was experienced. His three interceptions were the most of any game in his career and the game-sealing pick was the first he has ever thrown in the fourth quarter, unable to throw the ball away.

“At times I was getting frustrated and trying to do too much,” Howell said. “They did a good job on defense, and we made a lot of mistakes. I was pressing too much, just trying to make a play.”

Turns out replacing two 1,000 yard running backs and two exceptional wide receivers isn’t quite as easy as it looks on paper. North Carolina coach Mack Brown may have been willing to make any number of allowances for Howell, and justifiably so, but the vox populi will look only at the pedestrian numbers and the picks and the loss and not the impossible position North Carolina put him in.

“He’s the one who turned the game around when he ran and made plays on his own,” Brown said. “He’s such a competitor. But you can’t expect him to throw the ball when you’ve got people around him all the time. You’ve got to protect your quarterback.”

The thing is, it was all still out there for Howell at the end, as poorly as things had gone for him and the rest of the offense. A game-winning drive, under the circumstances, would only have cemented his reputation for late-game heroics. Even getting North Carolina to overtime, against the odds, might have kept Howell in the conversation.

This won’t.

The Tar Heels may be able to salvage something significant from their season, but it’s almost certainly all she wrote for Howell and the Heisman. Perhaps that’s best for Howell, who never really seemed completely comfortable with the concept anyway. It’s not anything he’ll have to worry about now.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock joined The News & Observer in 2000 and has covered five Final Fours, the Summer Olympics, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.

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