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.
Appalachian State is a very good team, which was reflected in the tight spread on the game. At less than three points, the Mountaineers may have been favored at a neutral site. Still, the loss feels like a bigger upset. The Heels certainly had their chances, but once again the final drive came up short.
Water Cooler Discussion: If I were the coach . . .
As a fan, there was plenty to be frustrated about. For a coaching staff, I am sure that feeling is multiplied. A blazing fast start had the Heels up 7-0 before the home crowd could even settle into their seats. It took all of 17 seconds for the Heels to get their first touchdown but they spent the rest of the game playing from behind.
Appalachian State deserves a lot of credit for the win. In a highly energized atmosphere and facing an immediate deficit, the Mountaineers steadied the ship. It was primarily the defense that turned the tide, although the flip side of that coin is that the Tar Heel offense was once again largely stagnant in the first half.
Time to look back to the previous week once again. In the first half against Wake Forest, the Tar Heels had nine possessions. Their total plays for each possession were 3, 3, 4, 2, 3, 3, 5, 5, and 3. On Saturday, it was one play touchdown, then three plays punt, four plays fumble for defensive touchdown, four plays punt, three plays interception. A long drive for a field goal then a touchdown with one second remaining closed the gap to 10 points at halftime.
In the last five minutes, the magic started once again, but it was just not enough.
The clear challenge for the coaching staff is figuring out why the team is so effective in the fourth quarter and how that success can translate to the first half. It does not appear that this is simply a case of the opposing defenses playing prevent defenses while holding a lead. Nor is it just gunning the ball downfield to score quickly. Carolina had the ball for just over 7 minutes total in the fourth quarter. Those are sustained drives of 9, 8, and 6 plays.
The key to victories this year could well be putting up enough offense in the first half to make these fourth quarter comebacks unnecessary.
Key stat for the week.
The problematic stat of the week was -2 turnover margin. Sam Howell’s two interceptions and the fumble could well have been the difference in the game. The Heels outgained the Mountaineers 469-385 and had 13 more first downs. Those are numbers that without the turnovers are sufficient to win. It remains very interesting, however, that Howell protects the ball so well in the late game scenarios when he is actively pushing the team downfield. Perhaps it is just a need for the freshman to have more focus early in the game.
One reason why the defense is playing so well late in the game is that the Heels are doing a much better job this year preserving time of possession. Last year, 10 minute deficits were not uncommon and the defense looked tired by the end of the game. On Saturday, Carolina had the ball for just over half of the game (30:31). That may not seem like a big statistical victory, but considering where the program is building from, its a good start.
Looking Forward: A quick peek ahead.
A very difficult schedule only gets worse when Clemson comes to town. With injuries starting to take a toll across a thin offensive line, Sam Howell could be in for a long day. Having lost two in a row, the Heels will need to maintain a high level of energy just to keep the game close.
Saturday presents a great opportunity for Carolina. No one expects them to win. If they lose, it will just be seen as another Clemson victory on a march to the postseason. If the game is close, then the Heels will know they can play with anyone in the country.
Too many penalties, too many turnovers, and too many injuries for a team with very little margin for error. Two weeks of great comebacks were matched with two weeks of almost great comebacks. The first two weeks allowed for increased excitement and anticipation and expectations were building. The last two weeks have been a cold dose of reality for a program that is climbing but has a long way to go.