What a game that was last night between the North Carolina Tar Heels and Virginia Tech Hokies. And I don't say that in the fashion of “Wow what an incredible game I can't wait to show my kids one day,” but I mean that in the way of “Wow I would love to erase the last 30 minutes of that game from my memory forever.”
In all seriousness, that was a fun game up until the last few overtimes. The Tar Heels gave up 43 points, but the defense did come up big in a few spots. And of course any time they score 41 points it was a healthy offensive game. But there were some crucial penalties late in the game that came back to bite them, which will need to be cleaned up before the Tar Heels head home to face Duke next Saturday. That will be a must-win game for the Tar Heels for many reasons, but before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s look at the positional grades for the Tar Heel’s performance against Virginia Tech.
What a game Sam Howell had against the Hokies. For my money, it was his best game in his young Tar Heel career. He was 26/49 passing, which comes from taking a lot of shots downfield, for 348 yards and a record-tying five touchdowns. Here is another stat just to show how incredible Howell has been: he has 20 passing touchdowns for the season, which is a freshman school record. He broke that record in only seven games. He made a great pass to Beau Corrales in overtime that put the Tar Heels ahead for a brief second, and threw a couple beautiful deep balls to Antoine Green and Dazz Newsome in regulation that keep reminding us of how good he truly can be. Howell is still growing as a quarterback, but if we can keep getting today’s version of him, this team will be special very soon.
Running Backs: B
It wasn’t the best day for the Tar Heels backfield trio, but they definitely got the job done to keep the team in the game. None of the three surpassed 100 yards, with Michael Carter falling just shy at 91 yards. The running back trio also did not have any rushing touchdowns today, but they did have some timely runs that kept drives alive. One part where the running backs did not succeed were in short yard situations. Michael Carter was stuffed inside the five in the fifth overtime, and Antonio Williams got stuffed on another short yardage situation in the fourth quarter too. It was strange to see those two out there in those cases instead of Javonte Williams, but that’s what the coaches called for. This trio will look to bounce back next week against a Duke team who got torched for 150 yards by Virginia this week.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: B
When the quarterback has a great day, it’s tough to complain too much about the receiving corps, so we won’t do that here. Dazz Newsome was fantastic for the Tar Heels, bringing in nine receptions for 112 yards and two touchdowns. His touchdown catch for 47 yards on the first drive was a statement to Virginia Tech that the Tar Heels weren't gonna back down. Newsome was also part of the flea-flicker play that gave the Tar Heels a lead in the fourth quarter, a lead that looked like was going to end the game until Virginia Tech marched right back down the field in almost no time. Beau Corrales continues to show he can be a dominant end zone threat with his touchdown catch in overtime. Having a big body like Corrales is like a safety blanket for Howell when he gets in the red zone. But one of the most important things is that aside from an instance or two, the receivers looked much better catching the ball following all the drops against Georgia Tech. There is still room for improvement, but they have gotten better since the bye.
Offensive Line: C
Offensive line play is not sexy unless you’re a football purist, which in that case, it’s one of the best things to watch. The Tar Heels could have used some of that sexy offensive line play on Saturday to protect their freshman quarterback. Protecting Howell has been an issue for the team this year, but they have generally been better when Charlie Heck is in the game. But against Virginia Tech, Howell was sacked five times. But one of the most egregious errors that the offensive line made was the holding penalty in the third overtime by Joshua Ezeudu, which negated a big run by Javonte Williams, forcing the Tar Heels to go to first-and-twenty from the twenty-five, instead of a second down inside the ten. That was the turning point in the game, something that cost the Tar Heels a chance to win right there. The penalties will need to be cleaned up before the rivalry game with Duke.
Defensive Line: C
It was the Hokies’ rushing attack that kept them in the game for a majority of the evening. Hendon Hooker had 41 yards rushing before he had to leave the game, but it was Quincy Patterson who changed the game when he came in, especially with his 53 yard touchdown run after the razzle-dazzle touchdown by North Carolina in the fourth. There wasn’t much push from the front line, resulting in an incredible 250 rushing yards by the Hokies. Granted Virginia Tech only threw 21 passes, it still felt like something out of the Larry Fedora era on defense. Xach Gill was the only defensive lineman to breakthrough for a sack, with the other two coming from linebackers. Jason Strowbridge was held in check, as was Aaron Crawford. Virginia Tech dominated the line of scrimmage, which resulted in them dominating in the rushing attack.
The performance from the linebackers was better than that of the defensive line, but still not perfect. Tomon Fox and Chazz Surratt, which despite being a linebacker for seven weeks now still amazes me every time he makes an incredible play, both recorded a sack. Just an aside on Surratt, he has been unreal and despite getting plenty of praise for his performance, I still think he has been underrated as a linebacker. His first game against South Carolina was a bit of a learning curve, but since then he has been spectacular. He had fifteen tackles today along with that sack. He is starting to become a leader on the defensive side of the ball.
It is really tough to give the secondary a complete grade, seeing how they only were tested 21 times through the air in a 4+ hour game that had six overtimes. Virginia Tech just isn’t a team that is going to sling the ball all over the field right now. They like to establish the run. But there were still several instances of breakdowns. Damon Hazelton snagged two touchdowns, one of them being in overtime over Greg Ross, which was up for grabs, but Ross never made a play on. They only surrendered 236 yards in the air, but gave up a touchdown to all three quarterbacks who played. It wasn’t a memorable performance by the secondary.
Special Teams: F
It is not possible to trust a college kicker. And trusting them to make game-winners outside of 30 yards would be like trust falling onto a toddler, who knows what’s going to happen. That’s how it felt tonight each time Noah Ruggles stepped up to kick in overtime. It eventually came back to bite the Tar Heels. But on top of that, there was a unforgettable fake punt with Chazz Surratt in there that did not fool Virginia Tech in the slightest. As a matter of fact, they probably would have been more surprised had the Tar Heels actually punted. We don’t need to rehash all the special teams mistakes tonight. Let’s just call it what it was: A failing grade.
The coaching tonight was not the best either. For a majority of the game it felt as if Sam Howell was masking all of the Tar Heels’ inefficiencies. The fake punt choice was strange, because it felt like a situation they should have just left the offense out on the field for instead of trying to trick the Hokies, who are always good on special teams. The play calling in the fifth and sixth overtime on the goal line were questionable, which is becoming a trend on the goal line for the Tar Heels.
But the most questionable call was when they decided to go conservative in the third overtime after Virginia Tech missed their field goal attempt. They went into the wildcat, but then on third down they decided to go back to the air to pick up a first down. It worked so well that it was questionable why they decided just to settle for a field goal after that. It all comes back to not trusting college kickers. The Tar Heels were penalized for holding the next play and never recovered on that drive, then ended with the first Noah Ruggles miss. It wasn't a great night for the coaching staff, but they will have a week to prepare for a big rivalry game against Duke next week.