UNC rolls into Pittsburgh this Thursday and true Freshman QB Sam Howell will be driving. Howell has put together quite a season. He’s thrown for 26 touchdowns against 5 INT’s and is ranked 26th in the NCAA with a 153.0 passer rating. He’s also sporting a gaudy 14.2 Yards Per Completion.
We Pitt fans can only dream.
For those of you who believe stars matter, Howell checks all the boxes in what you’d want in a high school quarterback. Rivals a 4-star. Rated 5.9. Elite 11. All-American Bowl Selection. Howell held 32 offers prior to selecting UNC, including Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, Oregon, Michigan…and Pitt. Howell originally committed to Florida State before (somewhat) famously flipping his commitment to UNC, using a cardboard box and a couple of coke bottles.
It was Mack Brown’s first signature recruiting win.
And the 68-year-old Brown delivered on the promise that he probably made to Howell on his official visit, “Son, come and play for me and I’ll give you the keys to the offense” (make sure you read that with a southern inflection).
The offense is coached by Phil Longo. He’s a veteran (10 seasons as OC), and fairly accomplished (has appeared in six conference championships). Prior to UNC he coached Ole Miss to two two top-20 offensive finishes. Of course Ole Miss wasn’t able to field a defense that could keep up, and they finished 6-6 in 2017 and 5-7 in 2018. And keeping up is important because Longo is a quick strike kind of guy. In 2018 Ole Miss posted 7.1 yards per play (7th nationally), and in 2017 they averaged 99 seconds per scoring drive (1st nationally as far as quick-strike).
Longo’s quarterback each year at Ole Miss posted 150+ passer ratings and around 9+ Yards per Attempt.
Of course, as with many of these “Basketball on Grass” offenses, there is always a subtext, and if you look more deeply into the statistics you’ll find that Jordan Ta’Amu – the Rebels quarterback in 2018 – did not play well against the better defenses on his schedule. As a result Longo’s offenses struggled.
- Alabama – 79.4 Passer Rating – 7 points
- LSU – 84.1 Passer Rating – 16 points
- Auburn – 125.0 Passer Rating – 16 points
- Mississippi State (#1 overall defense in 2018) – 78.3 Passer Rating – 3 points
But this profile isn’t about Jordan Ta’Amu, it’s about Howell. Lets look at how Sam Howell has fared against the better defenses he’s faced this season.
In a phrase, he’s fared better than Ta’Amu, although you can argue he hasn’t faced quite as stiff of competition. Howell has faced three “legit” defenses so far, and also Duke. (You’ll see why I included Duke in a minute).
The first “legit” defense was Miami (currently ranked #18). However it was the second game of the season and we all know that Miami really didn’t hit their stride until, well until they played Pitt. Howell threw for 274 yards and two TD’s and posted a 190 passer rating against the undisciplined ‘Canes, mostly on the long ball. He averaged 17.1 yards per completion. UNC won 28-25.
The second “legit” defense that Howell played was Clemson. (Currently ranked #4 against what may be one of the softest FBS schedules in the country). Howell had his second worst game of the season. He threw for only 144 yards, though he did toss two TD’s and no INT’s. Still the Tigers held Howell to just 9.6 YPC and a 124.8 rating. Clemson won 21-20.
Four weeks later UNC played Duke. Duke has the #46 defense in the country, so calling them “legit” is probably a stretch, but this was a rivalry game. Lets just say David Cutcliffe’s defense was ready. They held Howell to a 39% completion rate and forced him to throw two interceptions. His yards per completion were a ridiculous 22.7 though, so basically Howell completed 10 long passes and that was pretty much all. Final passer rating: 121.8. UNC won 20-17.
The last and most recent “legit” defense that Howell faced was Virginia (currently ranked 21st), and it should be noted that Virginia was without their All-American Cornerback Bryce Hall for this matchup. Well Howell took advantage, and he bounced back from his horrific Duke game in a big way, posting 353 yards, 23.5 YPC, four TD’s and no interceptions (199.5 passer rating). Somehow UNC lost, 38-31.
Pitt of course will be the most legit defense Howell will face all season (outside of Clemson perhaps). We own the #5 passing efficiency defense (Clemson is #2). We are second in the country in sacks (Clemson is 20th). If there is an Achilles heel, it’s that Pitt is 27th in passing yards allowed (Clemson again is #2).
Don’t get me wrong people. This is North Carolina. The monkey on Pitt’s back is large, hairy and smells strongly of urine. But I think we know what is possible. It starts with pressuring the quarterback, and it ends with not letting any receivers behind us. I’d love nothing more than to write about Sam Howell’s worst game of the season next Tuesday…all we need is for the Pitt defense to have best game of the season. The challenge is there fellas. Lets see if they can rise to it like Elite defenses do.
Hail to Pitt