Miami Gardens, Fla.–Texas A&M was going to play with a chip on their shoulders after being denied into the CFP Semifinal Bowl Series.
For 48 minutes, the Aggies played with passion, physicality, toughness, and with a sense of purpose.
Devon Achane had two touchdowns in the final 3:44 of the contest, including a 76-yarder that put Texas A&M ahead for good, the No. 5 Aggies beat No. 14 North Carolina 41-27 on Saturday night at the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens.
“North Carolina had one heck of a team, man,” coach Jimbo Fisher said. “That was one of the great Orange Bowls. But I also say, there’s a heck of a football team standing in front of me.”
The Tarheels (8-4, 7-3 ACC) were the clear underdogs to Texas A&M long before some of the UNC players decided to opt-out. Tarheel Chazz Surratt, Michael Carter, Javonte Williams, and Dyami Brown – the potent quartet who amassed 4,056 yards of total offense, 41 touchdowns and a team-high 91 tackles – leaving the program early to prepare for the NFL Draft.
UNC went up for the first time, when Sam Howell hit Dazz Newsome on a diving 28-yard catch with 4:56 left in the half to put North Carolina ahead 13-10. The next score was a 10-yarder to Josh Downs with 8:01 left in the third for a 20-17 lead, a drive extended when the Aggies kicked the ball off in the end zone which was waved off by penalty. And the third was a 75-yarder to Downs early in the fourth quarter, when Howell saw him break free in the secondary, pointed to him and let the ball rip to in the air.
“We’re able to compete with anybody,” Tar Heels linebacker Tomon Fox said.
Kellen Mond was 16 for 26 for 232 yards and ran for a score for Texas A&M (9-1), who were in the Orange Bowl for the first time since 1944 and were one spot away from making the College Football Playoff Series. Jimbo Fisher improved to 3-0 in Orange Bowls, winning two previous ones at FSU.
Texas A&M got a fourth-down stop on the next possession, and Achane — the game’s MVP after a 140-yard day, splitting time with Isaiah Spiller after he got “a little banged-up,” Fisher said — sealed the victory on a 1-yard run with 1:34 left in the contest.
Fitting, in a season when young players scored the overwhelming majority of the Aggies’ touchdowns, a freshman had the final two scores.
UNC quarterback Sam Howell was 18 for 31 for 234 yards and three touchdowns and a interception, two of them to wide receiver Josh Downs. Even shorthanded North Carolina were able to move the ball down the field.
“We were so close,” Howell said. “We played a heck of a game out there tonight and just came up short. We were right there.”
The ACC sent two teams to the playoffs but went 0-6 in bowls, four of those losses by two touchdowns or more.
“We lost 4,000 yards coming into the game and still had a chance against the No. 5 team to win,” UNC coach Mack Brown said.
North Carolina had 285 yards and 27 points on their first ten possessions. They had 39 yards and zero points on their last four possessions. That was due in large part to the Aggies’ three sacks and four running plays that resulted in no gain.
Texas A&M: Mond’s rushing score was the 93rd touchdown he was responsible for at Texas A&M, tying Johnny Manziel’s school record.
North Carolina: The Tar Heels gave up 24 points in the fourth quarter, after allowing just 17 points in the first 45 minutes. It was a difficult end for a defense that forced five three-and-outs.
UNC will finish ranked in the Top-25 for only the second time since Brown left for Texas in 1997. The Tar Heels secured a signature win over then-No. 10 Miami, marking the largest victory over a Top-10 opponent in school history, while also signing their second consecutive Top-15 recruiting class.
Most importantly, 19 Tar Heels who started in the Orange Bowl will return for the 2021 season, including a potential Heisman Trophy candidate in Howell, the entire offensive line and 10 defenders who made serious strides as the fall turned to winter.