Going into the game yesterday, there was a lot of cautious optimism about what the Tar Heels could do in their first game of the season against a Power Five team. Mack Brown’s squad not only got the win, but they won in a fashion that we haven’t seen from the team in years: showing toughness, determination, and heart. Are those a lot of buzzwords? Of course, but every single one of them is deserved for what happened during that fourth quarter to put the nail in the coffin.
After going the entire spring/summer of not really knowing much, we can finally say that we learned a few things about the new look Heels. Let’s take a look at a few of those lessons.
Let Sam Howell Cook
Mack Brown’s freshman quarterback had the type of performance yesterday that the program has needed ever since Mitch Trubisky left for the NFL a few years ago. Sam Howell went 15-24 for 245 yards, two touchdowns, zero interceptions, and averaged 10.2 yards per pass. Additionally, he had 6 yards off of 10 rushing attempts, which looks bad but gets a lot better when you remove the three sacks he took for -24 yards because college football stat counting is dumb. Seven rushes for 30 yards is much more indicative of the pretty decent scrambling ability he showed.
The one detail that is missing from Howell’s performance is that he truly could’ve done much better had the play calling in the first have not been so conservative. UNC opted to run the ball in multiple 3rd down situations in the red zone, as well as in some general third and long situations. The play choices were odd, and Mack Brown admitted after the game that a clear adjustment had to be made going into the second half:
"We were very conservative with Sam Howell around the goal line early", Mack said, but said they decided at half that "he's a quarterback" and that they had to turn him loose.— Lauren Brownlow (@lebrownlow) August 31, 2019
The Heels turning Howell loose resulted in 151 passing yards in the second half, which was a decent improvement over the 94 yards from the first half. From this point forward it’s simple: Brown and his staff need to put as much trust as possible in their quarterback that he will be able to make plays in the air. More specifically, Howell needs the freedom to throw the ball in third down/red zone situations if they want any consistent scoring on offense. He’s proven that he has the skills to get the job done, and while he wasn’t perfect, he showed more potential than we’ve seen from a UNC quarterback in quite a while.
Jay Bateman’s defense is really, really fun
When looking at all three sides of the ball, the defense was the most hyped group coming out of training camp. Jay Bateman’s system is built to be simple, and yet the looks that they give the defense create havoc for the opposing offense. Yesterday’s game exemplified both of these facets, and boy was it fun.
The most interesting thing about UNC’s defense is easily the blitz packages, because Bateman uses a lot of delays, fakes, and general aggression. One of my favorite plays involved Myles Wolfolk, when he looked like he was going to play man on a receiver on the outside but when the ball was snapped he took a couple of steps towards said player before flying to the middle of the field for his second pick.
The best thing about the defense’s potential is that they should have Dominique Ross back against Miami. While linebacker Chazz Surratt was able to get to the right spots, his tackling struggles created some issues at various points of the game. Once Ross is back, it’s likely that we will see an even better show from the defense very, very soon. In the words of Donald Glover,
Penalties could cripple team down the line
While there were a lot of good things that happened against the Gamecocks, penalties were one of the more annoying aspects of the game. UNC found themselves getting called for really careless penalties, with the multiple false starts from wide receivers being arguably the worst of them. The team finished with 10 penalties, which cost them a total of 90 yards. Needless to say, this is sub-optimal for any team that has aspirations of playing winning football on a weekly basis.
Thankfully, South Carolina had just as big of a penalty issue as the Heels, which helped balance things out. The Gamecocks had 9 penalties for the game, which resulted in 75 yards lost. When looking at both teams’ penalty totals, we can at least for now chalk everything up to sloppiness in the first game of the year. However, betting on the penalty issues being a season-opening fluke is a dangerous game to play, and we should expect Mack Brown and his staff to review the tape and address the focus issues with the team this week.