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UNC Football at Wake Forest: Three Things Learned

Depth matters. 3rd Down (again). Games are 60 minutes.

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Wake Forest Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Welp. That sucked. UNC finally dug a hole too deep to climb out of and suffered their first loss of the season. A lackluster first three quarters on offense saw the Heels enter the 4th-quarter trailing 21-3. The only reason it was that close is a credit to the defense keeping the Deacs scoreless for almost three full quarters in the middle of the game. After scoring a touchdown with 12:04 left in the second quarter, Wake Forest didn’t score again until a FG with 1:09 remaining.

Folks, if they stay relatively healthy, the Heels’ defense is good enough to keep UNC competitive for the remainder of the season. They even held Wake to 24 points, which was what I predicted before the game. UNC just didn’t score the 41 points I predicted THEY would score. Whoops. Credit to the Deacs. They are a well-coached and disciplined team.

That aside, here are three more lessons from last night’s tough loss.

Depth Matters

Last week I mentioned that this team’s margin for error is razor thin. Last night proved that to be an accurate assessment. Starters Carl Tucker (TE), Antoine Green (WR), and Nick Polino (C) all did not start. During the first half, starting offensive linemen Jordan Tucker also left the game and did not return. That’s almost half of the starting offense on the sidelines. That doesn’t take into account Patrice Rene (CB, out for the year) and Jason Strowbridge (DL). All were sorely missed.

Perhaps most glaring is the lack of depth at center, where redshirt freshman Brian Anderson continued his inconsistent play. A few key false start penalties stalled drives before they even got started, and both Sam Howell and Jace Ruder were sacked a combined six times. Last spring, Mack publicly stated that the center position was a concern and last night we saw why. In case you were unaware, Anderson spent most of his high school career as an offensive tackle and he only played in two games last season.

Tucker’s absence removed a key blocker and large receiving target over the middle. Green’s injury meant the Heels missed 6 feet and 2 inches of additional size on the outside to stretch the field. Losing three offensive linemen? Even on its best day, this line was never going to be confused for Clemson, but very few programs can overcome losing two starters in the trenches. (Three if you add Strowbridge).

None of this is to blame injuries for the poor performance. The game was still winnable. This coaching staff just needs a couple of recruiting cycles before the Heels can develop necessary depth to handle key losses. Until then, inconsistent performances are going to pop up.

(Note: I originally stated that Charlie Heck left the game and did not return. This was incorrect. He played the entire game.)

3rd Down Efficiency (again)

Three games into this season, it’s officially time to label this a “pattern”. UNC ran 16 plays on third down. They converted two. That ran their total conversions to 9-for-42 through three games. Good for a 21% success rate.

The average distance to go on those 42 attempts? 8.4 yards. Yikes.

The reasons are plentiful. Combination of a problematic offensive line and young QB has led to 13 sacks through three games. The three-headed running back monster of Williams, Williams, and Carter has been reduced to just Javonte Williams and Michael Carter. Senior RB Antonio Williams’ role has been reduced with each passing week to the point that he didn’t even carry the ball last night (and I have no earthly idea why). A few untimely drops by the receivers have contributed. Play-calling has led to impressions of an inconsistent commitment to the running game.

Whatever reason you want to point to, and I don’t have an adequate answer, there is zero doubt after three games this is no longer an anomaly. It’s a trend. If it doesn’t get fixed, this team does not reach the potential that belies the talent in the locker room.

Games are 60 minutes. Kind of. Sometimes. Maybe.

This can go two ways, but I’ll start with the positive. Like the last two seasons, these Heels will not go down without a fight. After losing five games by one possession last season, they have now played three games that have been decided by six points or fewer.

However, unlike last season, this team isn’t blowing fourth quarter leads because of fatigue, sub-par defense, or insane coaching flubs (go to #3). They’re coming from behind, forcing opponents to play conservatively, and then playing to the very last second. For all the keyboard warriors on message boards and social media who are ready to give up after 15 minutes of action, this team will be a weekly reminder that games are 60 minutes. Take your heart medicine accordingly.

On the other hand, it appears the referees felt the game was over with 59 minutes and 58(ish) seconds remaining. They decided Michael Carter’s forward momentum was stopped on the field of play after earning a first down, but never stopped the clock. The game clock showed time remaining and replay showed Carter’s foot out of bounds with one second to go. The referees, however, sprinted off the field like there was an early bird special at the local gentleman’s club.

Either way – whether Carter’s forward progress was stopped or his foot was out of bounds – the clock should have stopped. If Carter’s forward progress was halted, there were two or three seconds remaining and the clock stops for a first down. That is arguably enough time for the ref to set the ball, start the clock, and UNC to snap it before the game ends. If Carter was ruled out of bounds, the clock stops at 00:01 and doesn’t restart until the ball is snapped. At a minimum, a review was warranted. God knows, less controversial plays have received 10 minutes of attention at 2:30 on a Saturday afternoon in 105 degree heat and 150% humidity.

To be clear, the referees did not cost the Heels the game. Don’t fall behind 21-0. Don’t give up a 27-yard completion on a 2nd and 16 conversion after getting your first sack of the night with 4:33 to play. Don’t miss tackles in the backfield. Don’t allow six sacks on your own QB(s). Don’t go scoreless for the first 42 minutes of the night. Don’t dance behind blockers with five seconds remaining on the clock.

I fully acknowledge all of that.

Yet, referees regularly take 5-10 minutes to slow down a targeting call to nanoseconds to determine the “intent” of a massive human running at 20 miles an hour with the sole purpose of slamming into another massive human. Surely the refs can be bothered to review whether there are a few seconds remaining for a final Hail Mary. It may not have mattered, but it would have removed a “what if” factor that was avoidable.

I mean...Manny Miles completed a Hail Mary last year. Right?