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Tar Heel Hangover: A bump in the road

A tough loss deals a dose of reality to this fairy tale opening to the season.

North Carolina v Wake Forest 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 Heels came out very flat for the first half and registered almost no offense for the first three quarters. The defense could not solve the Wake Forest whatever-you-call-it offense leading to a 21-0 deficit and not much hope late in the third. Then the light switch flipped on, but unfortunately, the Heels’ fourth quarter heroics came up just short.

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

Last week, following two thrilling late comeback wins, I pointed out that:

“There will, however, come adversity. Howell has been a superhero but he will hit bumps in the road as a true freshman. The defense has largely limited big plays but breakdowns will occur. The key will be how the team manages through those difficult times.”

Adversity hit in the first half Friday night. The Tar Heels had nine possessions through the first two quarters. Their total plays for each possession were 3, 3, 4, 2, 3, 3, 5, 5, 3. The longest drive constituted 29 yards. There was a lost fumble. They gained 71 yards in the entire half. Predictably, the halftime score was 21-0 in favor of the Demon Deacons.

This anemic level of offensive output was certainly unexpected against a Wake Forest team that gave up huge chunks of yards in its first two games. The Heels just looked flat. Confidence is certainly a helpful attribute, but it must be combined with energy and focus to produce positive results. The latter two seemed to be missing for UNC on Friday night.

The Tar Heels were just not sharp. A week after committing only one penalty with no turnovers against Miami, Carolina was penalized seven times and had a fumble. Those small mistakes led to a big deficit.

To the credit of the Heels, however, they did not hang their heads and accept defeat quietly. With an engaged sideline, the fourth quarter momentum turned into an impressive comeback. A couple of touchdowns and a dramatic two point conversion put the game within reach. Ultimately, however, the Wake offense was able to grind out a drive and its defense bottled up the last Tar Heel push.

Even though the loss stings, the coaching staff should be proud of the late effort. This is a team that believes. It was clear that there would be obstacles to overcome this year, but there was a lot of grit and determination on a night when mailing in the second half would have been the expectation a year ago. Despite the loss, the Wake Forest game was a sign of continued progress for a program on the rise.

Key stat for the week.

There are a lot to choose from here: Seven penalties, or 71 yards in the first half, which I’ve already mentioned. Or we could focus on the one second that was clearly left on the clock when the referees ended the game.

But what held the Heels back all game long was execution on third down. UNC was 2-16 for the game, including zero for a bunch of those in the first half. Combined with 5-16 against South Carolina and 2-10 against Miami, UNC’s hitting an underwhelming 9-42 (21%) for the year on third down. That is... not good.

The problem seems to be that Carolina, so far, either picks up big yardage on first down so it doesn’t have to face third, or the offense grinds to a hard-to-convert third and long. They have so far faced very few third-and-short situations where the Heels can utilize their powerful running game to make long drives longer. Patient possessions with consistent yardage have to continue to be points of emphasis until the problem starts to disappear. After three games, this is beginning to look like a trend instead of an anomaly.

Looking Forward: A quick peek ahead.

The Heels return to Kenan for a matchup against a very good Appalachian State team this week. The Mountaineers are 2-0 and are averaging nearly 50 points a game thus far. This game offers the opportunity for Carolina to establish an effective ground game and get a lot of points on the board. Of course, last week’s game looked to be the same situation on paper.

The Mountaineers are not to be underestimated. It might be easy for the Heels to look ahead, especially with Clemson next week, but perhaps the loss in Winston-Salem will serve as a wake-up call. The margin of victory, or defeat, through the first three weeks has been extremely narrow. A comfortable win would go a long way to letting the emotions rest a bit.

Final Thoughts

The Tar Heels are not going to win the National Championship. Sam Howell is not going to win the Heisman Trophy.

Now that the unrealistic expectations can be put aside, fans should take stock of where this team really is. Two very good wins. One very close loss. This team competes, is exciting to watch, and is demonstrating success on the field. Fans should be very pleased with the improvement and encouraged with the clearly positive direction of the program.

Go Heels!