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Tar Heel Hangover: Ring the Bell

A huge home win has the Heels back in the hunt for the Coastal.

Duke v North Carolina Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

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.

The Victory Bell has returned to Chapel Hill and will finally be painted Carolina blue after three years of frustration. A win in this rivalry is another sign of positive momentum for the program. The home sellout crowd was not disappointed with yet one more thrilling game and nerve-wracking ending. The team is back to .500 for the year with a winning record in the division. This was a good week.

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

With a program that is rebuilding, one should always be extremely hesitant to second guess a victory. Fans, however, need to be honest with themselves about how this one ended. Was this really a case where the Heels won the game or just that they did not make quite as many mistakes as Duke?

Let’s start with the play calling. Again.

It remains mind-boggling to me that a team with such a potent running attack can somehow fail to control the game. Excluding Sam Howell, the team had 39 rushes for 225 yards. That calculates out to 5.8 yards per carry after averaging 5.1 yards per carry last week. That’s 9 more rushing attempts from the running backs than last week, but yet the team could only put 20 points on the board. How can that be?

The answer is in the passing game. A grinding running game does require the occasional mid-range passing game to bail out a bad play on first or second down. Mid-range is the key. Howell was 10 for 26 passing for 227 yards. First, those stats show that the completions were just not there on a consistent basis. Second, the balls that were caught were all for big yards at nearly 23 yards per completion. Rather than take advantage of a tremendous running game, Howell far too frequently went for the knockout punch on play action.

Granted, the big plays are exciting, but it takes more small plays to keep the chains moving and get points on the board. Also, unlike last week, it appeared that Howell had time to make the short to intermediate throws. Instead, the offense opted for deep and long developing plays that forced Howell out of the pocket and frequently to his left. This was not a recipe for repeatable success.

Figuring out how to utilize the running game must be a top priority for the coaching staff. A quality ground attack is gold in the college game. Time to cash in.

Key stat for the week.

Turnovers were the key against Duke. Howell came into the game with only 3 picks on the year but he gave up 2 interceptions to Duke. The Heels also put the ball on the ground three times with two being recovered but the crucial third was lost at the Duke 2 yard line with the game clinching touchdown imminent.

That gave the Blue Devils the opportunity to drive downfield in the closing minutes. Aided by a few Tar Heel penalties, Duke drove the ball all the way to the 2 yard line with 21 seconds remaining. That’s when the play happened.

Watching live, I celebrated what appeared to be a horrible play call. The truth is, however, that the Carolina coaching staff just got it right. A review shows that not only were the defensive backs breaking to the intended receiver on the jump pass, but D.J. Ford made the absolutely perfect play. Blitzing from the edge, Ford knifed in and took out Deon Jackson’s legs. Chazz Surratt did the rest. The preparation and discipline for that play was impressive and it is refreshing for the Heels to come out on top of a last second finish.

Looking Forward: A quick peek ahead.

Another big home test awaits the Tar Heels. Off a road loss to Louisville, the Virginia Cavaliers will travel to Chapel Hill with first place in the Coastal on the line. The division is once again, convoluted. Four teams now have 2 losses. The Heels host one of them this week.

Virginia is an excellent football team. They hold opponents to just over 20 points per game and can score in bunches. Another sell-out for next week has been announced and the home crowd will once again need to bring a high level of energy.

Final Thoughts

What a tremendous win for the Heels! Beating a rival in a close home game is invigorating for the fan base and team alike. Maintaining focus and figuring out the direction of the offense will be crucial to carrying the momentum on Saturday.

Go Heels!