If you were like me, you just took pleasure in the little victories on Saturday. Anyone who heard the podcast before the game knows I was the the most pessimistic of the group, but we all expected to be thoroughly dominated by the defending National Champions. Yet, throughout the game, Carolina just kept hanging around. A combination of Tony Evers screaming to Apollo in Rocky and Teddy KGB explaining why he couldn’t finish off Mike McDermott to Grama in Rounders kept rolling through my head.
Yeah, I’m old.
The result in a lot of ways was like the first Rocky movie: Carolina hung with the champion, came up short in the end, but won a lot of respect. Could we see a rematch that would play out like Rocky II?
Let’s take a look at what stood out Saturday in our weekly Winners, Losers, and Honorable Mentions.
Chazz Surratt: What else can you say about what has to be one of the best stories in college football? When everyone would have understood if he decided he needed a fresh start somewhere else, Surratt committed to staying at the school he was a fan of growing up. He’s been pressed into service thanks to depth issues, and while he’s played better than expected, some of the praise he’s gotten felt like it was a little overdone because of his story. On Saturday, though, every ounce of praise was earned. He was the Tar Heels’ leading tackler. He was constantly in the Clemson backfield, registering a sack against Trevor Lawrence and also had a huge pass breakup. His confidence is evident at this point, and he deserves nothing but praise for completely turning his collegiate career around. His only negative was being the player who drew the coverage on Tee Higgins for Clemson’s go-ahead score. That’s just a great play call by Clemson, though, as anytime you get it designed to where a linebacker is covering Higgins, Higgins is going to win.
Jay Bateman: Akil gave a great breakdown yesterday of how Bateman managed to completely frustrate the Clemson offense. Despite the missing players up front and in the secondary, Bateman always seemed to be able to force Lawrence to act under pressure. Clemson’s offense had seemed like a juggernaut early on and Carolina held them to 21 points, 125 yards rushing, 206 yards passing, and registered three sacks. It was honestly Bateman’s biggest showcase of the season, and it’s a sign that he was a sensational hire for this staff. One seriously wonders if he keeps on this trajectory just how much longer Carolina will be able to keep him.
Going for the win: Akil touched on this yesterday, also. The offense went for it on fourth down three times, succeeding twice. Frankly, the one that didn’t succeed should have had Howell handed it off to the running back instead of keeping it. It’s clear in that fourth quarter that the coaching staff was fully aware that Clemson was the better team, and their lack of depth on defense would show if Clemson kept getting possessions. Their first fourth down gamble showed this as Clemson was able to pretty easily score after the failed attempt. That way of thinking continued when Javonte Williams scored to make it 21-20 as Mack Brown didn’t even hesitate to put two fingers in the air. It was the right call, and this really shouldn’t be a debate. There was enough time for Clemson to try and get a field goal either way, but it’s a lot easier for the defense to go for broke when they have a lead instead of trying to protect a tie, especially when they had sat for so long. If you ask this group to continue to play in overtime, it’s more chances for the better team to wear you out, not to mention more plays to expose players to injury. As someone who was there for the first Mack era and remembered him being known for ridiculously conservative play calling, it’s great to see the 68-year-old coach has adapted.
The actual 2 point play: You can praise Mack and the staff for the decision to go for two and be totally justified in saying the actual play call was weak. Carolina had been three for three on two-point tries this year, but that also meant three two-point tries were on film. Here are how each of them lined up:
Each look is slightly different. The first one was an option play, the second was a toss to the running back, and the third was a pass to the tight end. Now, here’s how they set up on Saturday:
Look familiar? The setup is almost exactly the same as South Carolina, except the receiver is on the left instead of the right and a man is in motion. It screams option similar to the South Carolina play. This formation also is what was decided on after a timeout, when Clemson had a chance to discuss Carolina’s previous two-point tries. It’s clear they had studied the tape:
Dabo Swinney: "(Defensive coordinator) Brent (Venables) said we would probably get the speed option, they'll put the ball in the quarterback's hands and see if they could find a crease on us."— Ross Martin (@RossMartin_IC) September 29, 2019
There’s a reason that Venables is paid a lot of money to run that defense, and he demonstrated it again on Saturday. There are so many aspects of this play call to question, from the fact that Carolina hadn't been successful on any stretch run all day, to the fact that Carolina’s running backs had had success against this line, to the mere fact that you are neutering the best aspect of Sam Howell’s game. Hopefully Carolina has a chance to try that again in a couple of months.
Onside kicks against Clemson: It’s not that they fail, it’s that they fail in the most heartbreaking way possible. You have 2015’s “offside” call, and then on Saturday where you get a perfect kick from Ruggles and Carolina just can’t get the ball back. Maybe the lesson here is to not put yourself in a position where you need it.
Dropped passes: The good news for Sam Howell is that he did not throw an interception, but the bad news is that the case of dropped passes that infected the team last year seemed to come back this year. Multiple instances of the ball being where it needed to be ended with the ball on the ground. Hopefully it’s not the beginning of another trend.
Jeremiah Gemmel was all over the field as well on defense Saturday, and is credited with forcing what turned out to be Carolina’s first recovered fumble of the year...Jason Strowbridge played through a ton of pain to recover that fumble and flash the turnover belt...Speaking of playing through pain, it’s clear how much the offensive line missed Charlie Heck, who played with a club on his hand and instantly made the offensive line better...Michael Carter had an amazing day on the ground, getting 102 yards against one of the best defenses in the country, and Javonte Williams was also able to rip off a long run and scored the last touchdown for the Heels...lost in all the excitement was the great day had by Cam’Ron Kelly, making five tackles and showing a lot of promise in the backfield. His knee injury is huge and frustrating considering how much had to work just to get on the field.