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UNC 20, Clemson 21: Positional Grades

They didn’t get the result, but UNC played their tails off.

NCAA Football: Clemson at North Carolina Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

That UNC was just inches away from (being a minute away from) what would have been the program’s biggest ever win and one of the biggest upsets in college football this decade is something that’s going to be talked about just about everywhere that UNC football is talked about for at least the next week, and probably longer. And while that doesn’t hold a candle to the kind of national seismic activity that would have occurred if the Tar Heels had pulled it off, this performance had a lot to build on for the program both in the short and long term. While we’ll be covering the latter throughout the season and beyond, here’s where we talk about the former. Let’s go through what the Heels did right and wrong at each position in this valiant effort.

Quarterback: B

This was... probably the worst game of Sam Howell’s young career as a Tar Heel? That’s probably to be expected, given that he was playing the #1 team in the country, including a defense that is somehow better than last year’s unit that had an entire front 4 drafted (three of them in the first round!!), but he didn’t feel as sharp throughout the game as he had in his first four games. As usual for Howell this season, he was pretty limited in attempts, tossing just 27 passes (his first four games, he’s attempted 24, 24, 28, and 41 passes, with that last exception coming entirely due to the big comeback UNC needed to try and mount after a 21-0 hole against App), but for the first time, his completion percentage dipped below 60% as he completed just 15 of them, for a mediocre 144 yards. He had his moments for sure, including the dime to Dyami Brown to open up the game’s scoring, the phenomenal adjustment and launch angle manipulation to get the ball to Beau Corrales for his second touchdown, and, of course, getting UNC down the field on its final drive and giving his team a chance to win. And his lower yardage and completion numbers weren’t all his fault; he suffered as many drops (with a generous definition) on Saturday as he had all season prior, and... well... Clemson is pretty good. But Howell also didn’t look all himself: his location was spotty on a couple of intermediate tosses, he skipped one ball near the end of the game that would’ve gone for a big gain, and he walked straight into at least one of Clemson’s 3 sacks when his pocket presence has been stellar so far. It’s a blip, I’m sure, but I don’t think we saw Howell’s A game even controlling for opposition. He’ll be back and cooking in no time, though.

Running Back: B+

The Heels were going to have to rely on their strongest position group to give them a chance against the Tigers, and Michael Carter and Javonte Williams delivered. Carter took the lion’s share of carries this week after Williams had been more featured recently, and delivered big-time, playing the role of one-cut back to perfection while finding holes to hit, not going down at first contact, and using his phenomenal open-field speed to hit 99 yards on his 16 carries for better than 6 yards a pop. Williams, as more a banger than a speedster or evader, couldn’t get as much going against an extremely physical Clemson front for most of the game, but powered the Heels’ final drive, getting the Heels into the red zone on a long run after a quick snap and scoring the game’s final touchdown. His final statline of 10 carries for 49 yards is plenty respectable after that 22-yard scamper, though, and he made a splash in the pass game, too, with receptions of 9 and 26 yards. In pass protection, both backs were pretty good for the most part except for on one pivotal second down, where Williams was simply obliterated by Isaiah Simmons on his way to sack Howell. Antonio Williams continues to be seemingly phased out of the running back rotation, as he got just one carry that went for a yard.

Receivers: B-

You just can’t drop four passes when your gameplan limits passing attempts and you’re a 28-point underdog. You have to make every opportunity count, and UNC’s receivers left too many of them on the field - given how close the game ended up being, it’s probably justifiable to say that two fewer drops win the game for the Heels. I won’t say it, because football has too many moving parts, but I think it’s a defensible opinion. The most egregious occurrence was a series that Dyami Brown is going to be thinking about for a while during prep for this week, where he dropped two consecutive first down balls on second and third down and killed a drive. But UNC’s receivers did keep getting open against a really good backfield and made a few phenomenal plays, including both touchdowns: the first involved Brown shaking A.J. Terrell out of his shoes and beating him deep, and the second was a really good improvisation by Beau Corrales. Brown, as usual, led the Heels in receptions and yards, going 3/65/1, while Corrales was his chain-moving self on the other end with 3/25/1 with a long of 11. Dazz Newsome struggled, hauling in just 2 of 6 targets for 10 yards - his and Howell’s connection appeared off with a couple of throws sprayed wide of Newsome and a drop on a not perfectly, but well-enough placed ball on Newsome’s end. Jake Bargas made a great play on the goal line on the final drive, but tight ends were otherwise invisible in the passing game.

Offensive Line: B+

Having Charlie Heck back was ginormous for the Heels, as they were night and day from the unit that we saw struggle mightily against the Mountaineers. They didn’t have the athleticism or power, for the most part, of the Tigers’ defensive front, but they held up in both phases of the game. You’ve seen the run game results above, particularly for Carter. With his one-cut style, that’s evidence of a disciplined game up front, guys getting to their spots and creating cutback lanes with not as much man-on-man action as obstacle-being - exactly what you want to do against a physically superior opponent, do as much as you can for the physical to not matter. They were solid in pass protection as well against a pretty aggressive gameplan from Brent Venables; the box score says Howell was sacked 3 times, which is usually the baseline number for a defense to say they won the day in the trenches, but as I said before, Howell ran himself directly into one, maybe two of those. The line held up.

Defensive Line: A-

I wrote earlier this week that the UNC defensive line would be where the Heels could make their chance to take this game, by capitalizing on Trevor Lawrence’s increased propensity to make mistakes this season and limiting Travis Etienne the same way that Texas A&M managed to. Lo and behold, they did exactly that. The line didn’t record a sack, but they created pressure all day through a variety of different looks so that Lawrence couldn’t get comfortable; he finished a pedestrian 18/30 for 206 yards (less than 7 YPA compared to a season average of 8.7) and one touchdown and missed a lot of throws you’d expect him to make based on his pedigree and recent history. Etienne was good, but not great, taking 14 carries for 67 yards and a tough touchdown. Jason Strowbridge had himself a day after coming back from injury that kept him out of UNC’s last 3-ish halves, with four tackles and a fumble recovery alongside several examples of him forcing the play into a gang of other blue jerseys. His running mate Aaron Crawford did a good job of plugging holes as well, though he didn’t pop off the screen as much as he has the past several weeks. Overall, though, this unit did exactly what it needed to do minus getting Lawrence to the ground.

Linebackers: A

Have yourself a freaking day, Chazz Surratt. On the biggest stage of his college career, the converted quarterback absolutely delivered, finishing this game as UNC’s leading tackler (7) but minus the miscues that defined his performance for me the first time he accomplished that feat. On seemingly every third down Clemson faced, especially in the second half, Surratt was in the backfield to make a play: A forced throwaway, a batted ball, a tackle for loss, whatever you wanted him to do near the line of scrimmage, Surratt was up to the task. He was solid in coverage, too, with two pass breakups on Clemson’s tight ends. His one bad play was getting burned by Tee Higgins, which... I’m not sure there’s a linebacker in the country who wouldn’t have been. Jeremiah Gemmel next to him had a nice game, too, with 6 tackles, a great pass breakup, a tackle for loss, and a QB hurry. He was also credited with creating the game’s only turnover, a fumble by Etienne. Dominique Ross played more of a pass rushing role with UNC getting thin in that area, and he did pretty well, too, adding a QB hurry of his own. This group created havoc in the middle and was up to every challenge thrown at them short of stopping one of the nation’s best receivers, which is more up to scheme than any of them. They did just about everything they could or that could have been asked of them.

Defensive Backs: B+

UNC was hit hard by the injury bug again before the game when it was revealed that Myles Wolfolk, the conference leader in interceptions with 3, would be out indefinitely. Cam’Ron Kelly was fortunately able to take his spot after a scary-looking hit last week, but that’s replacing an experienced player who had already succeeded in this defense with a true freshman who didn’t even get to practice with the first team during training camp. Kelly acquitted himself okay, with 5 tackles including a couple of boomsticks and decent coverage. Myles Dorn had a decent game, too; he played centerfield and didn’t allow any deep completions while he was there. He wasn’t around the ball much, honestly, so he didn’t have the chance to make plays, good or bad, like he has had before this season: the defensive line just didn’t let Lawrence test him that often. Moving to cornerbacks, Storm Duck definitely got victimized a little seeing starting action with Patrice Rene out for the season; he had 6 tackles that usually came after a Clemson reception in his vicinity. While nobody could really stop Tee Higgins yesterday, as he went 6/121/1 with deep catches on about every DB UNC threw at him, Duck was also the defender on the otherwise quiet Justyn Ross’ lone deep reception of 31 yards. He’s a good player, but some acclimation is to be expected. Trey Morrison was his usual very good self, despite a couple of plays where he expectedly got beaten by Clemson’s towering pass-catchers.

Special Teams: B-

Oh, if this section was just for specialists, it would be an A- at least, because Noah Ruggles and especially Ben Kiernan did their jobs just about to perfection. Ruggles didn’t have much to do for most of the game, nailing both his extra points and never attempting a field goal. Michael Rubino is the kickoff specialist, so Ruggles’ job was pretty simple. At least, until the game’s last functional play, the kickoff after UNC’s failed two-point conversion. For whatever reason, it was Ruggles who was called to kick the onside kick rather than Rubino, and he executed it perfectly, bouncing it just over a Clemson player’s hands and giving the UNC end-line defender a chance to catch it. The play wasn’t successful, but Ruggles pulled off an excellent kick. Kiernan had more to do, and he had himself another game, with a 45-yard average on his punts, no returns, and a 63-yarder that unfortunately just beat coverage into the end zone. He’s growing up quickly. Unfortunately, the other 10 guys on the field were abysmal for most of those plays: the endline coverage man on Ruggles’ onside kick was completely unaware of the play; UNC’s kickoff coverage was awful, allowing two returns for 30 and 38 yards; Dazz Newsome should have had room to run on at least one of Clemson’s five blocks but a missed block forced him to fair catch; etc. UNC didn’t have miscues on special teams, but they did get soundly outplayed here.

Coaching: A-

Y’all, I’m scared we’re not going to have Jay Bateman around Chapel Hill for very long. He’s been phenomenal all season long, but this was inarguably his best game yet. Dealing with personnel losses, he showed a different base alignment than he had in UNC’s previous games, more of a true 3-4 rather than the 3-3-5 he’s been fond of so far, and still managed to confuse the heck out of Clemson’s offensive line and coaches en route to manufacturing pressure without defensive linemen having to bully their way to the quarterback. Twists, stunts, delays, disguised blitzers dropping into coverage, pre-snap movement that drew 6 Clemson false starts, it was all there and it all worked. One third-down play had Chazz Surratt rush the passer as an inside linebacker alongside just 2 down linemen, putting 3 rushers against five linemen plus a running back, and Bateman’s design managed to put Surratt one-on-one with the back, whom he then beat on his way to forcing an incompletion. That’s special. Enjoy this defense while you can, because I’m scared we’re not going to have him much longer.

I’m going to stress again here that this section is about on-field, in-game coaching only, because we’ve talked enough about a culture change that gets a group that won 2 games last year to believe they can beat Clemson, about a staff that is preparing really well for their opponents week after week, etc. And for the first time, I think, this year, the in-game decision-making was really good! UNC faced three fourth downs near-ish midfield in the fourth quarter, one with the score tied and two on UNC’s last drive. On all three, Mack Brown signaled to go for it with no hesitation, even after the first attempt failed, and I love it. I also liked going for 2 after UNC scored the potentially equalizing touchdown: Everybody watching knew that Clemson was the better, more talented team, regardless of what had happened on the field so far. And when that is the case in football, your best chances of winning come when the other team has the least possible opportunities to be better than you. Overtime does exactly the opposite, so I think going for two, and the win in regulation, was the best call. Contrary to what it seems like, it’s the conservative call in this situation, and with a less talented, shallower, and less athletic team, it’s the right one. And finally, aside from one thing (I’m getting to it), the playcalling made sense and the plays that UNC wanted to make were usually visible and available. They got stopped sometimes by pass rush, balls batted, or Tar Heel self-inflicted wounds, but never did an offensive playcall feel pointless, overly safe, or doomed from the start.

But I can’t not talk about that 2-point playcall. Stretch runs hadn’t worked. All. Game. With Carter, with Williams, with Dyami Brown once, didn’t matter. Clemson’s linebackers were just too quick for UNC to set up blockers and get to the edge after taking a handoff, and nevertheless, Phil Longo kept trying it throughout the game, getting stuffed every time. UNC’s success in the run game came mostly in the over tackle-ish area or on dives in short yardage, definitely not out wide. So even without context, trying to win the edge with Sam Howell, a strong runner but not a fast one by any means, was an ill-advised move. Howell just isn’t a triple-option-type quarterback, so you’re not playing to the strengths that have got you to the brink of victory with that call. It’s even worse when the opposing defensive coordinator already knows the call:

UNC had already succeeded doing something similar against South Carolina, who weren’t prepared for Howell to be a runner. The lack of creativity here really rankles, just as much as the fact that Howell wasn’t given the option to be a passer, where he’s best, and as much as the final playcall amounted to trying the one thing on offense that hadn’t worked all game just one more time to see if this was the one.

I can’t be too mad, though. If the coaches are at this level for the rest of the season, I’m not sure UNC loses another game until December. For the first time this season, they had an outstanding game and I hope they take the right lessons from it.