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UNC Football: Activate the Air Raid Siren

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Sam Howell and his receivers have a great opportunity Saturday afternoon.

North Carolina v Georgia Tech Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The bye open week blues are over and the North Carolina Tar Heels return to action at 3:30 this Saturday versus Virginia Tech.

The last time the Heels were on the field, Sam Howell had another great day in his sixth collegiate start. The freshman quarterback went 33-51 (64.7 percent) for 376 yards with four touchdowns and one interception. He had career highs in completions, attempts, yards, and touchdowns.

However, UNC still has work to do on the offensive side of the ball.

One of the most pressing issues from the Carolina passing attack against Georgia Tech was dropped passes. The official tally from Atlanta two weeks ago was six dropped balls, yet, it seems like it was much more based on the tape and the magnitude of those drops. Howell could have tallied at least another 100 yards and two touchdowns if it were not for drops by the receivers.

In his weekly press conference, head coach Mack Brown was asked about the drops. After bragging on junior wide receiver Beau Corrales, Brown went to the issue of dropped balls:

We just got to catch balls. We can’t drop balls. And we dropped a few yesterday in practice, and now [wide receivers coach] Lonnie Galloway spent about 45 minutes after practice throwing them tennis balls. So, one of my friends was out there, and he said, “What’s that about, man? They ain’t going to be catching tennis balls.” And I said, “You know when you go to the golf course and they have these little bitty holes? And you’re trying to putt in, then when you see the real hole, it’s real big.” I haven’t seen that big hole yet on my golf, but same thing with football. Football is huge. If you can catch a tennis ball, and have to focus on it, you ought to be able to catch a football.

Brown went on to say that it was about focus. The UNC receiving corps is talented, but they have to focus during each play and secure the catch, or they’ll keep leaving plays on the field for a team that can’t afford it.

Dropped balls are killers on third down and in the red zone. Six games into the season, simply put, it is the time of the season when these situations matter most and opportunities can’t be made up.

Remember last year’s game against Virginia Tech? The Heels had to settle for four field goals in the red zone and lost by three points. The 40 percent conversion rate on third down, although better than other times in the 2018 season, did not help either, as Virginia Tech did just enough to beat out that limited attack. This year’s edition cannot have the same mistakes, because VT will punish them.

In this stretch of four weeks of Coastal opponents, the Heels will need to sustain drives and put up six points instead of three at every chance they get near the end zone. Self-inflicted wounds like dropped passes cannot be UNC’s downfall. Make the opponent beat you rather than beating yourself.

Let’s talk about the Hokie defense for a second: Despite a wild team victory two weeks ago versus Miami, the Virginia Tech defense still gave up 469 passing yards and four receiving touchdowns.

Last week in Blacksburg, Virginia Tech struggled to put FCS Rhode Island (1-5) away until the fourth quarter. Despite holding a 17-6 halftime lead, Rhode Island fought back to within a touchdown by the end of the third, because they outperformed VT through the air after they couldn’t run the ball. There are several factors to this, but Virginia Tech seemed to be in soft coverage most of the day to allow this.

All this is to say that Virginia Tech’s secondary is the weak phase in their defensive unit. The Hokies rank 78th in the nation in pass defense, allowing an average of 234.7 yards per game.

And it will only get worse for the first half against Carolina. Starting safety and senior captain Reggie Floyd will sit out the opening half due to a targeting call in the fourth quarter versus Rhode Island.

As an aside, it is an interesting note that very similar observation could be written about the Tar Heels’ secondary, especially considering the injury to Trey Morrison against GT that will keep him out “indefinitely.”

At any rate, the offense will have had two weeks to prepare for the always-tough task of taking on the Hokies in Blacksburg, and here’s what they’re working with:

Javonte Williams has the hot hand in the backfield. And after a 144-yard rushing performance against the Yellow Jackets, he, along with Michael Carter, should be fed the ball early and often.

But with a struggling Virginia Tech secondary, offensive coordinator Phil Longo needs to activate the air raid siren and let, as has become a bit of a rallying cry among Tar Heel faithful, Sam cook(e).

This game begins the most pivotal stretch of the season for UNC. The team has to give the receivers a chance to showcase their talent while instilling confidence in them, and they have to reward that. If Howell and the receivers step up to the task, they will be the biggest X-factor in securing a significant divisional road victory.