Ross Tudor wrote earlier this week about how the time has finally come for Carolina to get going in ACC play. The Tar Heels open their ACC slate Saturday afternoon at 3:30 in Kenan Memorial Stadium against a well-coached and tough-nosed Pittsburgh team.
We debated all offseason about the importance of the Georgia game and what a win or loss would mean for the program. What we have learned is that Carolina still, to this point, doesn’t seem to be ready to enter the national spotlight. It also seems rather apparent that it’s going to take more than a win over one brand name to earn respect from national pundits.
The focus heading into ACC play should not be about how the Tar Heels have played up to this point of the season season and what could have been if the game plan against the Bulldogs was executed differently. What should be magnified is the importance of starting 1-0 in the ACC. To offer so ‘coach speak’, “to be 2-0 you have to be 1-0 first”. The Carolina players and coaching staff have spoken ad nauseam about all of their goals and how they believe this team can achieve great things in 2016. None of what has been said can be taken seriously if walking out of Kenan Stadium Saturday evening the Tar Heels are 0-1. 2-2 overall and 0-1 in the ACC would by no means end the ACC title dreams. It also wouldn’t offer much confidence in the program heading into October.
The talk of a tougher schedule has provided a belief that Carolina will have a more difficult time getting back to the ACC Championship game, despite dismantling the majority of conference opponents they face this season. Unlike last year, the Tar Heels don’t avoid both ACC Atlantic powers Florida State and Clemson, the Tar Heels will travel to Tallahassee on October 1. The date with the Seminoles, rather than with the Tigers or Cardinals of Louisville, could end up being a blessing in disguise after the 63-20 shellacking at the hands of Bobby Petrino’s side.
Carolina is also set to travel to Miami, where the Hurricanes have jumped out to a 3-0 start behind new head coach and alum Mark Richt, not to exclude the always challenging matchup with Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech who come to Chapel Hill.
All of those games ahead have their own significance, but bare little meaning to what awaits this Carolina team on Saturday. Since joining the ACC, the Heels have held a 3-0 advantage over the Panthers. Back in 2013, Ryan Switzer’s two second-half punt return touchdowns propelled UNC in the two schools’ first meeting as conference members. 2014 saw a wild shootout take place in Chapel Hill with Carolina outlasting Pitt despite Panther running back James Connor’s four touchdowns and 220 rushing yards. Last season’s Thursday night meeting was a tad bit less eventful, even with Pitt’s second half rally falling short. This year should be no different in excitement and Coastal positioning.
No matter how this game goes, Carolina needs to show me that what they’ve been preaching all offseason and after the Georgia disappointment isn’t complete, utter crap. Yes, I expected a 2-1 start and should have little negative things to say up to this point. I’ll counter by saying for a team that returns as many key players as the Tar Heels do, I have been disappointed for the most part with their play this season.
The Carolina offensive line came into the season with the only question mark being who would fill in for the departed Landon Turner at right guard. Redshirt freshman Tommy Hatton filled that role against Georgia, but has dealt with injury since allowing R.J. Prince the opportunity to anchor that part of the line. What concerns me up to this point isn’t the right guard position, instead, it is the overall play of the line itself. The veteran line has had a tough time with pass protection and with pre-snap discipline, which has attributed to the teams 115th ranking in penalty yardage with their procedural infractions. Overall, they have done well blocking for backs Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan, but will need to show far more toughness heading into this weekend and the bulk of ACC play.
The defense has also continued to perform at a subpar rate after three weeks of the season. Carolina ranks 94th and 106th in total defense and rushing defense, respectively. That just isn’t going to get it done this season. After Week 1, you could sit back and commend Nick Chubb of Georgia for being a great back, but after watching FCS Nicholls and Missouri—who does boast a top-notch defensive front—hold Chubb well under 100 yards, that draws concerns. I’ve appreciated the efforts of Nazair Jones, Andre Smith, Cayson Collins and a few others up to this point, so I wouldn’t quite yet place the blame on coordinator Gene Chizik. Either way, there needs to be a greater collective effort and sense of accountability moving forward.
I applauded Mitch Trubisky in my film review for his efforts on Saturday, posting a school record 18 consecutive completions. I will reiterate what I said then, Trubisky has had tremendous success against FCS Delaware and James Madison, even Illinois, when it comes to throwing the ball with great precision and accuracy. All of what he has done in those spots is great, but I need to see it against a quality opponent.
I need Trubisky, like I need the Carolina offensive line and defensive front seven, to show me that he can do it week in and week out. Trubisky has performed admirably up to this point and I can place few criticism upon him. Now is the time for him to start living up to the billing.
Starting this weekend, I need Carolina to show me that all that they’ve said up to this point wasn’t just talk for the birds. Show me that Carolina football is truly ready to make that next jump into perennial ACC contention. Show me all of this against Pittsburgh Saturday afternoon and then we can talk about Florida State and the possibility of repeating as Coastal champs.