#5 Texas A&M wins the 87th Capital One Orange Bowl
By Harvey Fialkov
Orange Bowl Committee
Miami Gardens, Fla. -- It was supposed to be a rout for 5th-ranked Texas A&M and iconic coach Jimbo Fisher.
Well, the Aggies did prevail 41-27 over 14th-ranked undermanned North Carolina, but the final score doesn’t tell the story of this roller-coaster thriller played in front of 13,737 socially distanced spectators at Hard Rock Stadium Saturday night in the 87th edition of the Capital One Orange Bowl.
It took 24 fourth-quarter points and a breakout game for freshman running back Devon Achane for the Aggies to erase three leads by the Tar Heels and give Texas A&M (9-1) an eight-game winning streak, its longest since 10 in row in 1998.
The 5-foot-9 Achane, who had 224 yards all season and a high game of 99 yards, scored the go-ahead touchdown on a 76-yard jaunt up the sideline with 3:44 remaining in the game.
He capped it off with a 1-yard touchdown burst and finished with 140 yards on 12 carries to earn Outstanding Player of the Game honors.
“I've got to thank the O-line for that,’’ said a shocked Achane. “You know, it was a counter play. No. 85, Jalen Wydermyer, made a great block.
“I was just following the block because they made it easy for me.
“I was tripping, I almost fell. So, when I broke the tackle and I looked up, there was nobody right there, I was like, ain't nobody catching me.’’
It was North Carolina’s (8-4) first-ever berth in the Orange Bowl and first major bowl since the 1950 Cotton Bowl (27-13 loss to Rice).
It was the Aggies’ second foray into the Orange Bowl, but first since a 1944 loss to LSU.
It was also the first meeting ever between the programs and first head-to-head coaching confrontation of two future Hall of Fame coaches in Fisher and Mack Brown, two of the six active coaches with National Championship titles.
But Fisher sort of had a home-field advantage as he is now 3-0 in Orange Bowls as Florida State’s coach (2013 and ‘16) and 7-0 overall at Hard Rock Stadium with the Seminoles.
“With those guys out [the Tar Heels] still played their tails off,’’ said Fisher, who used his deceptive speed to avoid a Gatorade shower from his players. “Their offensive line did a heck of a job and their backs and the quarterback, receivers, Mack, they did a heck of a job and I just want to say thank you to those they played.
“I know they're disappointed but, man, that was a heck of a football game. I have a lot of respect for those guys.’’
The Aggies were expected to rout the undermanned Tar Heels and prove to the selection committee they made a mistake by not including them in final four of the College Football Playoff, it was actually North Carolina earning national street cred in a game that featured five lead changes.
Four of North Carolina’s top four players, including its three leading offensive weapons – running backs Michael Carter and Javonte Williams, and receiver Dyami Brown – as well as its leading tackler in linebacker Chazz Surratt - opted out to preserve themselves for the NFL Draft.
North Carolina is the only team in the nation to have two 1,000-yard-plus rushers in Carter and Williams. The backfield tandem had a combined 2,385 yards and 28 rushing TDs between them.
To paraphrase the late, great Sean Connery from the “Untouchables”: Playing the Aggies without four of UNC’s top players was like “bringing a knife to a gunfight.”
Conversely, not one Aggie voluntarily sat out the game.
So clearly, UNC quarterback Sam Howell had to shoulder the bulk of the offense. He certainly answered the call by throwing darts all night long, finishing with three touchdown passes on 18-of-31 for 234 yards, as well as 25 rushing yards.
Howell now has 68 touchdown passes in two seasons, surpassing Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence for the ACC record by a sophomore quarterback. Howell has thrown at least one touchdown in every one of his 25 games, the longest active streak in the nation.
“I just want to be the leader of this football team and I want to take this team to great places, and I think we have a lot of potential in that locker room and a lot of younger players that are going to work harder than anyone in the country this offseason, and for this team I think we just keep going in the right direction,’’ Howell said.
“We came up short tonight, but that still doesn't take away from the great things we've been able to accomplish as a team. This is the first time in 70-something years since we've been to [a major bowl], so this team has accomplished some great things.’’
Trailing 17-13 at halftime, Howell hit a wide-open 11-yard floater to freshman receiver Josh Downs in the corner of the end zone. Following Grayson Atkins’ PAT, UNC recaptured a 20-17 lead.
On the play just before the TD pass, Brian George’s interception in the end zone was negated by an illegal substitution penalty.
The Aggies ended the third quarter down three points but perched on UNC’s 5-yard line.
However, a false start pushed the Aggies back to the 10, and the Tar Heels were able to hold Texas A&M to a 23-yard field goal by Seth Small for a 20-20 tie with 14:02 left in the fourth quarter.
It took North Carolina just 7 seconds to strike back as Howell launched a bomb down the sideline to a streaking freshman Josh Downs, who hauled it in at the Aggies’ 30 before jogging in.
The 75-yard touchdown pass was the third longest in Orange Bowl history.
Entering the game, Downs had just three receptions for 28 yards and one touchdown. He finished with four catches for 91 yards and two touchdowns.
In Howell’s two-seasons, he has 19 touchdown passes and no interceptions in the fourth quarter.
Now it was Aggies senior quarterback Kellen Mond’s turn as he found his favorite receiver Ainias Smith downfield, who juked his way to 54 yards. Smith finished with six catches for 125 yards.
Smith entered the game with a team-leading 49 receptions.
“Man, they were big. I told myself to just stay calm, let the game come to you and be yourself,’’ Smith said. “I really wasn't tripping on the first half. I was definitely giving my all.
“The second half when I started getting the ball I told myself whenever I get it, just go ahead and make a play, and be you.’’
On third-and-goal from the 4, Mond couldn’t find an open receiver and ran it untouched. The PAT made it 27-27 with 10:11 left.
Mond finished with 232 yards on 16-of-26 passes and added 36 rushing yards with the aforementioned touchdown.
The touchdown gave Mond 93 (71 passing, 22 rushing) in his career with the Aggies, and he ties Johnny Manziel’s school record (63 passing, 30 rushing).
“It's definitely a game where it definitely tested our poise, our leadership and our character,’’ said Monds, who hopes his next stop is the NFL. “I think just some of the older guys we've got and something not emphasized the entire season was the combination of the younger guys and the older guys being able
to play together on both sides of the ball; and being able to execute both in the pass game and in the run game.
“Even down in the second half, we never lost our poise and we just continued to attack, and we were able to come up with a great win.’’
A huge sack by freshman defensive tackle McKinnley Jackson pushed UNC out of field goal position and forced a punt, pinning the Aggies to its 13-yard line.
However, three plays later, a simple off-tackle handoff to Achane resulted in a 76-yard romp and 34-27 lead. It was the fourth longest rushing touchdown in Orange Bowl history.
“He's been doing this since high school really, since forever,’’ Smith said of Achane. “I told him he was the light. I told him, ‘Bro, every time you touch it you have the ability to go out here and do something with it.’ So yes, I was expecting that.’’
The Aggies finally lived up to its third-best rushing defense in the nation when they prevented UNC from converting a first-down on consecutive 3rd-and 4th-down and 1s with no-gain stuffs of seldom-used running backs British Brooks and Josh Henderson. Aggies defensive tackle Jayden Peevy was in on both stops.
“We stuck together,’’ Aggies defensive end DeMarvin Leal said. “It gave us all a boost. We were still sitting there trying to fight and fight and fight for that energy that we were trying to get, and as soon as that happened, everybody that you could just feel the energy because that energy is so contagious … and it was an amazing outcome.’’
On a short field, Achane put the cherry on top with three consecutive bursts, including a dazzling 22-yarder and finally a 1-yard TD to cap off the Aggies’ victory, which possibly could move them up to No. 3 behind Alabama and Ohio State.
“We knew we were going to have trouble rushing,’’ coach Brown said. “We were just hoping we could throw it well enough to have a chance to still win the game.
“I did think our coaches in a very short week figured out a game plan to give us a chance.’’
Texas A&M’s 24 fourth-quarter points was the most in the Orange Bowl since Oklahoma scored 27 in its 1958 48-21 victory over Duke.
“You learn to raise your game in the fourth quarter and you don't win because you want to, you win because you practice and prepare to,’’ Fisher said. “We practice each of them hard. We put them in those situations each and every day and we demand excellence out of them. But I can demand it all I want; they've got to get it out of themselves.
“I have the utmost respect for our players. They rose their game. They did what they had to do on every fourth quarter all year and they take a lot of pride in that.’’
It didn’t take long for the Aggies to strike. It was a rare interception thrown by Howell. Aggies’ linebacker Andre White ran it back 10 yards to give the Texas A&M prime real estate at UNC’s 28.
Although the Aggies came up a yard short on their third-down conversion – a rarity given they were ranked second in the nation in that category – Fisher didn’t hesitate to go on 4th-down and 1, from UNC’s 9-yard-line.
Aggies’ workhorse running back Isaiah Spiller broke a tackle in the backfield and burst into the end zone. The extra point made it 7-0 with 9:11 left in the first quarter. Spiller had 11 carries for 50 yards and two scores.
Howell had only six picks all season before the costly turnover.
“It's huge for us to be able to be Orange Bowl champs and having a New Year's Six bowl is huge,’’ said Aggies linebacker Buddy Johnson. “Just look back at where we came from and it's just huge to be a part of it.’’
North Carolina, using a lot of no-huddle offense, bounced back with an 11-play, 63-yard drive culminating in a 29-yard field goal by Atkins.
The drive began with a nifty 17-yard run by Brooks. Brooks had just nine carries all season for 50 yards. Another 15 yards was tacked on by a face mask penalty by defensive back Leon O’Neal Jr.
Following a 7-yard scamper by Howell, O’Neal Jr., committed another silly penalty – unsportsmanlike conduct - to set up Atkins’ field goal to trim the Aggies’ lead to 7-3 after the first quarter.
The Aggies improved to 19-0 when leading after the first quarter under Fisher, but they had to sweat this one out.
The Tar Heels stymied the Aggies to start the second quarter and achieved solid field position on a 23-yard punt return by senior receiver Dazz Newsome.
A clutch 4th-down conversion on Howell’s 10-yard run eventually led to a 32-yard field goal by Atkins to make it 7-6 with 11:09 left in the half.
The Aggies countered that with a 68-yard march and Small’s 25-yard field goal. The key play of the drive was a 31-yard connection to Smith.
An 11-yard keeper by Mond, abetted by a horse-collar penalty set up Small’s chip shot for a 10-6 lead.
The teams exchanged touchdowns before the half. It was the Howell to Newsome show on UNC’s 75-yard drive. The two connected on three passes for 50 yards, including Newsome’s 28-yard (6 catches for 68 yards) sensational diving catch off a deflection by defensive back Antonio Johnson in the end zone.
After a replay review, the touchdown stood and the PAT gave North Carolina its first lead, 13-10, with 4:56 left in the half.
The ping-pong affair continued as Mond, despite getting sacked twice, engineered an 8-play, 75-yard scoring drive.
A third-down scramble and 27-yard jumping catch by Chase Lane kept the drive alive. A 23-yard hook-up to Hezekiah Jones set up Spiller’s 3-yard off off-tackle touchdown, his second of the game (and ninth of the season) for an Aggies’ 17-13 lead at halftime.
Many pundits (including Mack Brown) felt the Aggies, who played a difficult SEC schedule, were overlooked by the more nationally renowned 4th-ranked Fighting Irish, who were crushed by No. 1 Alabama 31-14 in Friday’s Rose Bowl.
Others felt third-ranked Ohio State didn’t belong in the Final Four because the Buckeyes (7-0) had played only six games, but they proved themselves worthy after Friday’s stunning 49-28 upset of 2nd-ranked Clemson.
“Texas A&M deserved to be in the playoff, so give them credit for the year that they've had,’’ said Brown, who’s 10-5 against Texas A&M, including 10-4 when he coached Texas.
“They beat Florida. They lose one game to Alabama, like everybody else that's played them has lost to them, and they're big and they're physical, and they do a great job coaching. They've got really, really good players.’’
Brown came in with sort of a home-field edge himself, coming off North Carolina’s 62-26 blowout of the then 9th-ranked Hurricanes at Hard Rock in both team’s regular season finale. The Aggies gained 778 yards, the most ever yielded by UM, and Carter and Williams combined to gain 544 yards, an FBS record.
Obviously, the world of COVID eliminated the annual pomp and circumstance surrounding the Orange Bowl classic. Both teams arrived New Year’s Eve, instead of the usual weeklong stint strolling the South Florida beaches and taking in the nightlife.
The national anthem – for the second year in a row – was sung by Parkland sixth grader Reina Ozbay.
The glitzy halftime show was reduced to a pre-recorded compilation of past halftime shows, coupled with season highlights from both teams. However, there was a short fireworks display to end intermission.
The real fireworks came on the field, especially on the Aggies’ ledger in the fourth quarter.
NOTES: The low Orange Bowl attendance was obviously due to COVID-19 protocols and the most allowed by the state. It’s actually the fourth lowest attendance in the 87-year history, with only the first three years (1935-37) lower. … Fisher won his national title at Florida State in 2013, the final year of the BCS era before the four-team playoff format began. Brown won it all at Texas in 2005 and made it back to the title game in the 2009 season only to lose to Alabama. ... The Aggies were 6-of-6 in the red zone, while UNC was 3-of-3. … The Aggies were third in the nation in time of possession, averaging 35:06 per game but only had less than a five-minute edge over the Tar Heels (32:13 to 27:47). … Without Carter and Williams, the Aggies ranked third in rushing defense (92.2 yards), held the usually potent UNC rushing offense to just 90 yards.
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