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Tar Heel Hangover: Recovering from Saturday

The Virginia Tech loss was difficult, but will it ultimately be devastating?

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Virginia Tech Lee Luther Jr.-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the Tar Heel Hangover. This is our opportunity to review last week’s game, second-guess all of the key moments, and set the game plan for the week ahead.

The Elevator Speech: What happened last week.

It has taken all of Sunday to process what exactly happened on Saturday against the Hokies. So many chances to win the game were given away. A few times when defeat seemed inevitable, the Heels managed to survive. Ultimately, Carolina came up short on the road in a critical conference game. It is a difficult loss indeed.

Water Cooler Discussion: If I were the coach . . .

Saturday was yet another twist in this year long football roller coaster. It seems that every week brings the ultimate of either optimism or ongoing pessimism. There just does not appear to be a comfortable middle ground where losses are just setbacks instead of morale killers.

The line between success and failure is incredibly thin this year. Just two days ago, Carolina controlled their own destiny in the Coastal. The huge recruiting news of Desmond Evans’ commitment looked to be a sure sign that everything was headed in the right direction. Then Saturday brought one of the the closest defeats imaginable and now all of those good thoughts seem to be the stuff of fantasy.

These are the kinds of emotional swings that accompany a season of resurrection with a fan base that is desperate for success. Make no mistake, the future is bright. The present, however, is a murkier picture.

Take the play of Chazz Surratt for example. The former quarterback turned linebacker remains both my favorite and most frustrating player on defense. Surratt seems to always be around the ball and Saturday was no different. He finished with 17 tackles, including 7 solo and a sack. Those are outstanding stats. On the downside, Surratt seems to miss a lot of tackles in the backfield. This is especially true when he blitzes and has a free path to the quarterback. Many of his tackles are the wrap-up-and-stand-up variety as he seems to have not yet learned how to really deliver a hit. His inexperience also leads to poor angles and missed execution in traffic, which really hurt on Quincy Patterson’s long touchdown run with less than five minutes remaining in regulation. Surratt is a microcosm of the elation and agony that accompanies the team.

Another area of developing concern that must be addressed is the offensive play calling. Against Clemson and twice against Virginia Tech, huge two-point conversions were stuffed with questionable play calling. There simply must be a couple of go-to plays that the team is confident can gain three yards. Virginia Tech won the game on a quarterback rush behind a running formation. Carolina’s potent running game never got that opportunity.

There also has to be a decision on play calling strategy late in the game. Throughout the fourth quarter and the first four overtimes, it appeared that the coaching staff wanted to win through the air but did not want Sam Howell to take a chance on a winning play. That combination will not work.

Finally, there are just too many mistakes in crunch time. A critical holding penalty in overtime. The absolutely inexcusable delay of game on a field goal attempt that would have won the game. A timeout to ice Carolina’s own kicker. The team is better than last year but the end of game situations still seem like fire drills both on the field and on the sideline.

Key stat for the week.

40 rushing attempts at 3.6 yards per attempt. This is a misleading statistic. Through much of the second half and overtime, the play calls were for passes and the offensive line had trouble keeping Howell upright. The Carolina quarterback finished with 10 carries for -10 yards (including two mind-numbing called quarterback draws at the end of regulation). Take away those attempts and negative yards, and the Carolina rushing game had 153 yards on 30 carries. That equates to a whopping 5.1 yards per carry.

That level of sustained success begs two questions. First, why was the ball in Howell’s hands for 59 plays (49 passes and the 10 rushing attempts) and only with ball carriers for 30? Second, again, why did the team not try to pound out that 5.1 yard average from the three yard line?

Very, very frustrating.

Looking Forward: A quick peek ahead.

There is no more rest for the weary. Duke comes to Chapel Hill next weekend and the Heels are once again behind the eight ball. As the season has demonstrated, there are no easy wins for this young team that is still learning with each week. There must be three wins in the last five games, but outside of Mercer, where will the remaining two come from? To achieve bowl eligibility, Carolina must win one of the next two at home against either Duke or Virginia. That leaves a necessary home win against Mercer and one on the road against either Pitt or NC State.

Final Thoughts

The danger of optimism is the disappointment that accompanies every failure to succeed. College football provides precious little opportunity for in-season perspective as each week feels like do or die. For a 3-4 Tar Heel team, that may just be the case from here on out.