Say this for Carolina’s first four games this season: they’ve been worth watching to the end each time. Every single game has come down to the last possession, which is a lot better than the product that’s been on the field for the last two seasons. That they are 2-2 after all four games is, in the macro, a good result, but in the micro ridiculously frustrating.
So in the wake of their second loss in a row, what three things did we learn about this Tar Heel Football team?
The Offensive Line Has Issues
This is related to what Jake started with last week. When you look at the offensive line play and realize they were without both Nick Polino and Charlie Heck, it’s clear that the lack of depth is looming large. Sam Howell was under pressure way too much, and his strip fumble that was recovered for a touchdown was the epitome of just how poorly the line played without those two key players.
App’s Demetrius Taylor is left completely unaccounted for on Howell’s blind side, gets the sack, the fumble, and the touchdown all at once. Howell was sacked two other times yesterday, and they couldn’t get the ground game going until the second half At that point, it turned into too big a hole to recover from. Add to that yet another illegal snap penalty, and a false start on a 3rd and 4 that could have been the nail had Howell not run for it on 3rd and 9, and you are just dealing with a line that is suffering.
The lack of depth bit them here just like it did last week. Consider it a legacy of the Fedora years, and one that is going to take time for this coaching staff to rebuild. There is hope, as the ground game was able to be established later on, but expect Howell to be under a ton of pressure next weekend.
The Defense Needs to Create Turnovers
In four games played so far, Carolina only has four interceptions and zero fumbles recovered. The one interception they recovered this week resulted in zero points for the offense, and the game today could have turned on a fumble at any point by App State. It’s especially glaring when, again, you see the strip sack resulting in seven for the Mountaineers and two interceptions resulting in the other seven points.
It’s not that the defense is bad. Taken as a whole, the defense has stepped up multiple times to get the other team off the field and they have ten sacks so far on the year. The defense has allowed a total of 22 points in the second half all season. That is an amazing stat, but for the most part it hasn’t been because the defense has forced turnovers that put the Tar Heels in great field position. The offense is continually having to start on their side of the 50, and that isn’t helping the team either get off to a quick start or better assisting them in coming back from their deficits.
At some point, you need to win the field possession game and the only way you do that is with turnovers. You can’t count on your offense getting a 90+ yard touchdown drive every time you’re pinned that deep.
It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint
Let’s step back from the one game view and revisit where we all were at the beginning of the season. There was an absolute belief out there that 0-4 going into Clemson was possible, and the team would be staring at 0-5 before getting into the majority of ACC play. Instead, they are 2-2, and likely will be 2-3 after next week. That means they have seven games to get four more wins for bowl eligibility. When you see a slate that includes Georgia Tech and Mercer, getting to six wins is absolutely obtainable.
Should you be upset about the fact they had a real chance to be 4-0? If you are, it’s completely justified. You also have to look back at the South Carolina and Miami games and realize they easily could be 0-4. The margins are just razor thin, and them not being to start three of four games on time has bitten them twice now. This is also the sort of stuff you expect from a program that’s got a new coaching staff, quarterback, and had won a total of five games the two prior seasons.
There is a lot of evidence that shows the program is absolutely in a different place than in the past two years. Being down in the fourth quarter does not intimidate this team, which alone is impressive but especially so when you see how this freshman quarterback has treated that quarter each game. The problems on defense haven’t been about scheme so much as they’ve been about not making the play they are in a position to make. Unlike the past couple of seasons, all of this is coachable. The Tar Heels have also played in four maddeningly enjoyable games to watch. Again, that’s not really been the case for the past two plus seasons.
Appalachian State and Wake Forest both won partly because a culture of winning has been instilled in both programs. Wake is in line for their fourth straight winning season, and Appalachian goes into games against P5 opponents thinking they can win, and nearly pulling it out. Their response when Carolina initially cut it to three shows you exactly the type of culture they have. Next week’s opponent made “Clemsoning” famous before Dabo Swinney built them into the powerhouse they are. In all of those cases, it took time to root out the previous culture and instill what they have now.
You can’t just instantly undo the culture the program was in prior to Brown’s arrival. It takes time, but all signs are that they are going in the right direction.