Well...we’ve seen this movie before. A poor first half, a spirited second half comeback that falls just short, and another tough loss to an in-state opponent. Next verse, same as the first. North Carolina’s defeat to Appalachian State had several repeat offenders but a few new ones as well. Here are our grades from UNC’s second loss of the season.
The Sam Howell Jekyll and Hyde Show continued on Saturday, with Howell showing plenty of good moments and plenty of dreadful ones. He once again had difficulty sensing pressure, he missed throws, had a bad handoff, and threw a bad interception on a slow-evolving screen play that set App State up with a short field that led to their second touchdown. He can be forgiven to some degree for the strip sack touchdown (more on THAT later) but his second half interception was a real killer.
But then...there was the good stuff. He led the Heels on a series of terrific drives, threw for three touchdowns, and ran for a fourth, finishing with 323 yards passing on 27-41. At times he evaded the rush and used his legs to convert on key third and longs, and he showed better decision making down the stretch.
Here’s the key to Sam so far: He excels in the hurry up offense. When the plays are slow to develop and take 20+ seconds at the line he is susceptible. When things are moving quickly and he doesn’t overthink it, he gets rolling. That’s why he plays well coming from behind. If the Tar Heels figure out a way to get him into his comfort zone, maybe these second half flurries won’t be needed.
Running Backs: B-
Last week Michael Carter made the big impact out of the backfield. This week it was Javonte Williams. Williams went for 94 yards on 16 carries and added 11 yards receiving. Several of his runs were real big man plays through multiple tackles. His 21 yard run in the third quarter capped a terrific sequence for him when he was the lead back when UNC went power and ended up cutting the lead to 27-24. Besides him, however, UNC didn’t get much from the backfield. Carter was ineffective, getting just 17 yards on 8 carries, and Antonio Williams, who finally saw some meaningful playing time had just five yards on three carries. UNC’s three-headed running back monster may have shrunk to two, but week by week there’s no telling which of the two Mack Brown will lean on. UNC had a lot of runs stuffed at the line but when you’re running behind the shambles that is the O-line, that’s hardly on the backs.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: C+
First, the good: Carl Tucker had two fabulous plays; one where he juked a Mountaineer defender out of his shoes and picked up a first down, and the second when he hauled in a one-handed touchdown in the third quarter. Dazz Newsome announced himself with the opening TD and had some big catches in the fourth quarter before being knocked out of the game. Dyami Brown was silent early on, but came up with some big catches in the second and third quarters. Beau Corrales was effective as a deep threat and UNC made a lot of plays through the air, often fighting for extra yardage.
Now, the bad. The drops. Oh, the drops, the drops. Rontavious Groves, Newsome, and Michael Carter (on pass catches) were all guilty of drops at key moments in the game, most of which would have either picked up first downs at the point of the catch or been in prime position to run for them. There is no shortage of playmakers among UNC’s pass catchers but they’ve got to help the freshman QB (and themselves) out sometimes. Also, late in the game, Groves failed to get into the end zone on UNC final touchdown drive, getting tackled at the 2-yard line when he had an opportunity. The Heels did score, but the seconds they lost there could have been helpful later.
Offensive Line: F
First, let’s all remember that Charlie Heck and Nick Polino are out and they’re our best O-linemen and we miss them. OK, you done? Good. Because holy freakin’ pass protection Batman. UNC’s poor protection of Howell could be summed up on the strip sack alone: It’s not that no one blocked Demetrius Taylor; it’s that no one looked at him. The entire UNC line shifted to the right, leaving Taylor free to nail Howell, who never knew he was there. Joshua Ezeudu, playing in relief of Heck, had a rotten game and that was the low point. It’s four weeks in and you can already set your watch by a Brian Anderson illegal snap penalty, which was then followed up by a drive-ending sack. UNC is going to have to overhaul its offense to rely on the hurry up and run game because conventional pass plays are going to be brutal with the problems up front. Dear lord, I just remembered who’s coming to town next week...
Defensive Line: C
Aaron Crawford had a solid performance at nose tackle, making six solo tackles, and one-half for a loss and was the standout performer. The line struggled against the run in the red zone, but they were handed some pretty rough situations by both the offense and the secondary. That said, they were ineffective at getting a pass rush on the quarterback (their only QB pressures came from blitzes) and, while they didn’t give up too much yardage on the ground, they were pushed around too much on key moments when UNC needed a three and out. Appalachian State found themselves looking at 2nd and short far too often.
When one of your starting interior linebackers is a converted former quarterback, it’s probably not a great idea to have your other starter ejected in the first half. Unfortunately, no one explained this to Jeremiah Gemmel, who was tossed after a truly needless targeting penalty after a big Mountaineer third down conversion. That led to an extra 15 yards and, shortly thereafter, a 27-10 lead for App State. Besides that utter stupidity, UNC’s backers had a mixed game: Chazz Surratt was beaten badly on the second touchdown of the game and UNC struggled to make tackles throughout. Tomon and Tomari Fox had trouble setting the edge on several run plays as well. There were, however, some solid plays: Dominique Ross made a big sack in the red zone on the Mountaineers opening drive to hold them to a field goal and had some good moments in coverage. Surratt had a sack of his own.
There was no Sage Surratt pitch-and-catch this time, but UNC’s secondary has plenty to think about after this one. The bright spots were Trey Morrison open field tackling (a rarity for UNC in this game) and Myles Wolfolk’s interception. Everything else was rough. Myles Dorn led the team with 12 tackles, 8 of them solo, but he also dropped a pick early on, was burned for a long reception, and missed some key tackles in the backfield. Myles Wolfolk may have had an interception but his tackling was woeful. Greg Ross was beaten several times for long receptions and nickelback D.J. Ford had an awful missed tackle that sprung Mountaineer QB Zac Thomas for a 50 yard run. After pulling to within 27-24, Heels gave up back to back receptions of 31 and 43 yards, eventually leading to a momentum-breaking touchdown.
Special Teams: B
Michael Carter’s 75-yard kickoff return was the brightest moment and Ben Kiernan had strong punts on 3 of his 4 attempts, one going for 58 yards. Noah Ruggles had a chance to get his Nick Weiler on, but his 56-yard attempt was blocked to end the game. On coverage, the Heels didn’t give up any big returns and for the second week in a row the special teams came away registering a net positive.
This may be harsh, considering it was turnovers that killed the Heels in this one, so let’s get a compliment out first: This team has heart, they never give up, and they never think they’re out of a game. That wasn’t true last year, so the coaching staff gets credit for that. With that out of the way; over and over again, UNC got it wrong in key moments.
There were already rumblings about Phil Longo’s playcalling and after Saturday, they’ll become yells. Once again, UNC’s offense (which has no shortage of talented playmakers) can’t get going early and it cost them. The 23-minute scoreless stretch from Dazz Newsome’s touchdown at 14:43 in the 1st quarter to Ruggles’ field goal with 6:57 left in the 2nd was where UNC lost the game. UNC’s offensive line was a mess, which means quick slants and hurry ups were needed to take pressure off Howell. It took FAR too long for them to speed things up and Howell was asked to tapdance too many times inside the collapsing pocket. There was also poor clock management at the end of the first half (barely making it to the endzone in time, despite having two timeouts that weren’t used) From the first predictable three and out, it was clear that the beat goes on for Longo.
Some slack can be given to the defense, since 14 of Appalachian State’s points came off dreadful turnovers, but they surrendered a momentum-killing blitzkrieg of a drive in the third quarter and gave up a key first down on a play in which they had the wrong personnel on the field. UNC may have gotten the ball back with 30 seconds left in the game, but they’d have had a whole lot more if not for brutal defensive playcalling on 3rd and 5 when UNC badly needed a stop. UNC sold out against a run up the middle and left the edge completely open, and Zac Thomas converted, killing any shot at a proper final drive. Anyone who thought the Mountaineers were, after a timeout, going to slam the ball up the gut for the third time in a row after they’d just been stuffed, raise your hand...didn’t think so.
Simply put, most of the same problems we had against Wake were present today. Much of that falls on the coaching staff.