I don’t think anybody could have scripted the last two drives of last night’s UNC-Duke game to better encapsulate this year’s ACC Coastal if they’d tried, and it’s a minor miracle that, after two years of relentlessly failing to make the final stop or push, the Heels came out on top of this topsy-turvy battle. But there were a whole 55 minutes of game before that, too. Let’s take a closer look at what happened in UNC’s first victory over an in-state team since 2015:
Quarterbacks, even the very best of them, have their bad days. And there’s no doubting it: this was one of those for Sam Howell, possibly his first in a Tar Heel uniform. In his first experience in a true rivalry game (Virginia Tech doesn’t count. Yet.), Howell suffered his first game with a completion percentage under 50% (he went 10/26), his first game not throwing more touchdowns than picks (2 of each), his lowest passer rating so far (121.8, because the college system is broken), and rarely looked comfortable all night, frequently running around and back in the pocket trying to extend plays that were never there, forgetting that he can’t run away from college defenders enough to re-platform and deliver a good ball. And yet, when he did, he was, as always, a joy to watch: Those 10 completions netted him 227 yards and two gorgeous deep touchdowns, and his arm talent was on full display on several other throws that he squeezed into tight-to-nonexistent windows for his receivers to make a play, whether it was hitting Dazz Newsome in the perfect spot on a deep out despite picturesque coverage, or allowing Garrett Walston to catch a chain-mover up the middle with a defender draped on him because the defender didn’t have time to react to the ball being out. Even on his bad days, Howell is a good quarterback, and while he has to learn how to throw a ball away instead of trying to make things happen the way he could in high school, he’s going to be a treat for UNC fans to watch for a long time, even when he’s not at his best.
Running Backs: A-
So on a day where UNC’s quarterback was clearly struggling, the Carolina running backs had to be difference-makers, and all three (!) of them were: Javonte Williams got the majority of the carries, taking 22 of the group’s 39, and did pretty well with them, with his third 100-yard game of the year. His 111 yards put him right at 5 yards per carry. It won’t just be a good rushing night that Williams is known for, however; as his fumble at the Duke 3-yard line on UNC’s last offensive drive of the game set the Blue Devils up with 3 minutes to drive down the field to tie or win the game. That fumble is all on Williams, as well; for some reason he tried to vault the line of scrimmage to score from 9 feet out. He apparently realized that was a bad decision in mid-air and had no choice but to extend for the goal line, at which point the ball got smacked out of his hands. Brutal, brutal decision-making, and thankfully it didn’t hurt the Heels. It’s definitely a learning moment for Javonte. Michael Carter equaled him in efficiency, taking 12 carries for 64 yards at 5.3 yards a tote. Both runners refused to go down at first contact all night, catching Blue Devil bodies all game and grinding the defense down for the big plays that UNC eventually managed to capitalize on. Antonio Williams, who had a minor injury that kept him out of pre-bye action for the most part, also came in and did some work, with 5 carries for 50 yards, including a phenomenally executed draw play that went for 24. He had 5 carries for 22 yards last week as well, so he may be getting more and more integrated into the offense. Carter was the only one of the three who got involved in the passing game, as Duke’s linebackers sat on checkdowns all game. Carter took his lone reception 19 yards.
Usually, the quarterback’s and receivers’ grades are linked, but that’s not really the case here, because, as Chad Floyd said repeatedly in the THB staff’s Slack channel, “the shots were there.” The Heels frequently had a deep man open thanks to the need for Duke to respect the UNC run game, whether it was Dyami Brown, Antoine Green, Emery Simmons on a couple of snaps, or Toe Groves when he went deep. UNC couldn’t connect on too many of them, with Howell putting a couple deep balls out of reach or being harassed in the pocket too often to really take advantage, but that’s football. When it worked, it was gorgeous, with the play of the night probably being Dazz Newsome’s impossible catch pinned to the DB’s back while being interfered with. Newsome had a standout night, catching four balls for 103 yards and a touchdown on 5 targets. The Carolina wide receivers definitely did their jobs well in terms of following playcalls and beating DBs. Where they suffered was in two key areas. The first was in going off-script. While Howell’s extension of plays was ill-advised at the best of times, as he couldn’t create enough space with his legs to put his body into a throw without getting hammered or his arm hit for a fumble, he also didn’t have anywhere to go if he did have space, because there weren’t many examples of receivers working back to the sideline and towards the line of scrimmage to create a target for their quarterback. I don’t need this to be worked on, because Howell shouldn’t be stringing plays out until his mobility improves, but it was a failure to adjust. The second, as always, was hands, as a few untimely drops prevented this game from being over well before it was. The most egregious was committed by Dyami Brown on a sitter in the end zone on the final drive that would have put UNC up two scores with about 4 minutes left. That’s an opportunity you can’t miss.
Offensive Line: B-
The good stuff first - you can’t have a run game with three running backs all averaging over 5 yards a carry without some domination up front, so it’s clear that the Tar Heels’ offensive line did their jobs there, and the film backs it up: Time and again, they didn’t just open holes for UNC’s running backs, but gave them the kind of hole they wanted, whether that was conventional power blocking, for Michael Carter outside the tackles or spacing for Javonte William’s one-cut style. The substitution of Joshua Ezeudu for Ed Montilus didn’t seem to matter for the group, as they continued to work as a unit to get stuff done on the ground. They struggled, however, in pass protection; Howell was only sacked twice, but was under duress constantly, and maneuvering a broken pocket took way too much of his energy. He had several balls batted behind the line of scrimmage, one of which led to his second interception and an easy score for Duke after it was returned to just 7 yards away from the goal line. The line also contributed to his inability to scramble; while he isn’t the fastest quarterback anyways, the line was unable to sustain any blocks that could have earned Howell at least a couple of positive yards, with the exception of one 4-yard scramble.
Defensive Line: B+
Jay Bateman is a mad genius, y’all. He was tasked with stopping Quentin Harris, who so far this season has done about as much damage with his legs as with his arms, and decided not to employ a QB spy at linebacker and let his disguises and defensive line talent do the work of neutralizing Harris’ run threat. And the crazier thing: aside from Duke’s final touchdown, where Harris just ran away from the blitz and into the end zone, it worked: Harris had 8 non-sack carries for just 21 yards; besides the touchdown that’s 7 carries for 14 yards. Bateman’s different pass rush angles and techniques, and the great application thereof by UNC’s front, froze Harris enough to where hiss usual running lanes weren’t open, and he had to rely on his arm to get anything done. Jason Strowbridge was the standout member of the group, with 10 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and another tackle for loss, but Aaron Crawford was his usual gap-plugging self and the third spot, mostly manned by Tomari Fox, held up as well. They did get a little gashed by running back Deon Jackson, who took 19 carries for 91 yards and was frequently able to get past the front line, but they held up well against a unique threat of the kind that had given them trouble just last week.
What more can be said about Chazz Surratt? I was hard on him after a first game that already had UNC fans and press swooning about his transition, but at this point, he’s cleaned up his game tremendously just halfway through the season, much quicker than I thought possible, and become a legitimate All-ACC candidate at his position. The crazy game-sealing interception was just icing on what was already a great game for Surratt: he had a sack, 12 tackles, and a QB hurry before that, limiting the damage that Jackson could do at the second level on a regular basis. But he was supported superbly as well, as UNC went with 5 linebackers for more snaps than usual to compensate for the lack of bodies at CB: Jeremiah Gemmel absolutely feasted, with 1.5 sacks, 9 tackles, and a phenomenal pass break-up as UNC’s primary nickel defender, and Dominique Ross added 6 tackles of his own and a strip-sack that helped UNC maintain its cushion, as well as an interception in coverage that negated a promising Duke drive. Credit goes to Bateman for his blitz calls, but the fact that all three off-ball linebackers were able to get to the quarterback is a testament to their preparation and play, particularly when the on-ball guys, Tomon Fox and Allen Cater, held the edge well on run plays but couldn’t get home to the quarterback. The off-ball linebackers filled holes, made plays, and were everywhere: the position group that we expected UNC to have to hide to have a successful season has instead become one of the main groups that’s pushing it forward.
UNC just doesn’t have bodies at cornerback at this point in the season. An already depleted group lost promising true freshman Storm Duck for the game after a hard collision with the turf, leaving DeAndre Hollins to take the majority of snaps opposite Greg Ross. The freshman got taken advantage of more than a couple times, allowing the as-yet unheralded Jake Bobo 4 catches for 51 yards as he torched UNC early. Hollins did tighten up (and the pass rush started making Harris more uncomfortable) in the second half, and Bobo didn’t do as much damage then, but he was responsible for most of Duke’s explosive plays through the air as he hasn’t quite learned to find the ball yet in trail coverage, and simply got beat at the line of scrimmage too many times. Ross fared better, allowing a couple of big plays as he moved around some, but also denying a lot of passes with good coverage that forced receivers and/or passes out of bounds. The safeties were better, with Myles Dorn providing good help over the top, helping out in run support, and not allowing the chunk plays that have been his downfall before. D.J. Ford might have had his best game yet, with six tackles, a QB hurry, and a wrap-up of Deon Jackson on the final play that probably helped him short-arm the throw into Surratt’s waiting arms. This group is fighting a war of attrition, and trying to hold up. For a week, it did.
Special Teams: B
This week was a special teams roller coaster in Chapel Hill. First, after missing a couple of relatively easy kicks (one after being iced by his own staff) that would have won the game against Virginia Tech, Noah Ruggles was pre-emptively benched for freshman walk-on Jonathan Kim after it had been said that the competition between the two and Michael Rubino was ongoing and carried into pre-game warmups for the previous several games. Kim took over kickoff duties, too, apparently, and that’s how today’s game started. Kim’s first kickoff was returned, but short of the 20, and then his first kick, an extra point, was a wobbler that went through the uprights only about 20 feet over the crossbar. At that point, it was evident that he wasn’t going to keep the job long-term. Still, Brown kept him in until midway through the second quarter, where he asked him to try a 52-yarder for his first collegiate field goal attempt. It... didn’t go well, and Ruggles was back on for UNC’s next extra point and both field goal attempts after, all of which he nailed. Kim kept the kickoffs job, and allowed one more return that got around the 30, but other than that reliably put the ball in the end zone. Credit to Ruggles for not changing his preparation and having the mental resilience to win the game for UNC after being yanked. On the punting side, Ben Kiernan was his reliable self, with 5 incident-free punts for 211 gross yards, though a few of those were close to getting blocked. Returns got interesting, though: after several punts that should have been fair caught and weren’t, leading to a line of 2 returns for -6 yards, Dazz Newsome was benched for Rontavius Groves, who promptly did exactly the same thing and was re-benched for Newsome. Newsome fair caught his last opportunity, so hopefully that lesson’s been established, and they managed not to hurt the Heels.
It seems, from a perusal of UNC fan fora, that the honeymoon period with Phil Longo is over. I don’t think he deserves all the vitriol he’s getting for this week, though. As established before, the shots were there. I don’t think there was an ill-advised deep ball of the bunch, especially as several of them came out of RPOs that Howell identified good matchups with. The receivers got open. The line couldn’t pass protect. It’s a well-worn script in the annals of football. The thing is, though, Longo did adjust for it. Howell’s attempts went back down to where he started the season, around 25, and the running backs took the brunt of the offensive load again despite said matchups on the outside, suggesting that he made an executive decision to start forcing the ball on the ground. He probably got too run-happy at times, but it almost always worked, and after a staff that refused to play the hot hand at the right times, this approach, while also imperfect, is vastly preferable. Jay Bateman, on the other hand, remains magical: I’ve waxed about him above, but also, reference the now-famous bit of information that he knew that an RB jump pass was coming on Duke’s last play of the game. You can see it not just in Surratt’s slowing down and jumping to block a pass, but also in Myles Dorn not getting fooled for a second and covering the would-be receiver - He coached against that play, of all things, and it being a low-percentage play in the first place, he was bound to win it. Mack Brown loses some points here for his handling of the kicker situation but gets them back for going for it on 4th down in the shadow of Duke’s goal post - that extra time may have been the difference even without a score. Overall, UNC took advantage of a Duke team that gave them the opportunity. That’s enough for a decent grade.