That one didn't just sting. It wasn’t just a gut punch. It was repeated blows to the body in multiple painful places. You can use your imagination at the places. Those blows also were self-inflicted, as if the pain were enjoyable in some weird way.
With growth comes pain, and this season has brought its fair share of both. So, with that in mind, let’s take a look at what we learned in yesterday’s 43-41 6OT heartbreaker.
The team hasn’t fully learned how to win
The fact of the matter is that when you are 3-4 and your losses are by a combined 12 points, it doesn’t matter that you won two close games. In each of the four losses, Carolina had legitimate shots to either tie or win the game, and in each loss there was a substantial failure that kept them from getting over the hump. What’s scary is that on Saturday, you can really point to every aspect of the game and see substantial failures that lost the team a winnable game.
“The team” refers to coaches, as well. On defense, Jay Bateman arguably had his worst game when the Hokies were able to consistently beat the Tar Heels and keep them from running away with it. We’ll go more into the specific issues this team has on defense in a second, but giving up 41 points to this Hokie team is not a good look, especially when they were on their third quarterback by the end.
On offense, it’s tough to question a 41-point outing, but it is when there seemed to be a determined lack of effort made to give the ball to the strength of the offense, the running backs. The numbers may say that rushing and passing were even, until you consider that ten of the rushing attempts were by Howell, which is what all the prolonged throws he was trying to take go down as. Take away that and you have 49 passes to 30 runs. In a game where you scored 41 points, no running back had more than Michal Carter’s 91. It brings back the concerns of Phil Longo where he can get the stats, but in big spots his players tended to not finish the job.
As for special teams? Well, there was a reason I made this prediction back in August. Can you argue there were other reasons that they lost Appalachian State and this game? Yes, but the fact is that in both of those games, a missed kick is the difference in the result. Icing your own kicker doesn’t exactly help his cause, either, nor does committing a penalty that makes completing a field goal that much more difficult. One two separate drives.
There’s just a lot of the past two seasons still in the DNA of the team that will take time to get worked out. There are signs that it’s a lot better than at the end of the Fedora era, but even in the wins, Carolina could not run away and hide to make the games easier. It bit them today when Virginia Tech was able to take momentum away.
This team cannot defend a running quarterback
There had been hints of this all throughout the year, including Georgia Tech when they were able to stay in the game thanks to the skills of James Graham, and the success that Wake had using the mesh on offense. The running quarterback issue was hammered home on Saturday when Virginia Tech quickly saw success moving Hendon Hooker around, and then realized they were better off bringing in third string Quincy Patterson instead of relying on Ryan Willis.
Patterson was only three of six for 54 yards passing, but was the Hokies’ leading rusher with 122 yards on 21 attempts. That’s insane considering he didn’t even play two full halves, and it was really no secret what the Hokies were going to do by bringing him out there. His touchdown pass in overtime was earned because of the rushing, and multiple times the Tar Heels failed to get the Hokies off the field deep enough to where they could make life easier on the offense.
Seven games into the season it’s now a real issue, and you wonder if it’s one they can overcome. This is a problem with the next two games coming up, as both Quentin Harris for Duke and Bryce Perkins for UVa are threats to run the ball. You can bet both OC’s are going to be looking at this tape and realizing the vulnerability there, and it becomes a bigger concern when you realize that the lack of depth in the secondary will create some scary one on one matchups. It’s completely possible this will be Carolina’s downfall if they don’t go to a bowl.
It’s time to adjust expectations
The first half of the season led everyone into a little bit of fool’s gold. The Tar Heels have talent but can’t just walk into a stadium and easily win a game. A lot of that is due to the factors mentioned above, and the injuries sustained on both sides of the ball haven’t helped.
Carolina had control of the Coastal Division as they entered Saturday, and that they only lost three games by ten points led fans to openly talk about having a great chance to take that crown and get a rematch with Clemson. That’s all out the window now with their inability to take care of the Hokies.
The Tar Heels are now 3-4, needing six wins total to qualify for a bowl. Those wins have to come from three of Duke, Virginia, Pitt, Mercer, and NC State. None of those games, even Mercer, should be taken for granted. While Carolina would, remarkably, likely win the Coastal if they should somehow win out, fans have every reason now to forget that as a goal.
At the start of the season, six wins and a bowl would have been seen as a tremendous accomplishment. With the recruiting this staff has done, including the great news about Desmond Evans on Friday, and the sheer closeness of every game, there is every reason to still be optimistic about the direction of the program. Instead of looking to the Coastal crown and a rematch against the Tigers, perhaps it’s best just to focus on winning the next game in front of you and let everything else take care of itself.