The primetime matchup against the Miami Hurricanes this Saturday will be one of the most interesting games that the Tar Heels play this year. The Heels lost badly to them last year, it’s the home opener, it’s primetime, and oh yeah, Mack Brown is now the head coach. What more can you ask for, right?
Truth be told, while the win against South Carolina was as exciting as it was, there’s a lot of questions left to be answered about this young Tar Heels team. Similarly, the Hurricanes have a reasonable amount of questions themselves, perhaps more so with their offensive line than anything else (though that may not be true either, and we will get into that in a moment). With that said, here are a few things to keep an eye on when these two teams square off.
What happens when Sam Howell is unchained?
Following the game against the Gamecocks, I had a reasonable amount of criticism for how the offense was handled in the first half. To me, what it came down to was that there were plenty of opportunities for play-option / deep ball plays when Carolina managed to get South Carolina to load the box on defense. However, while Sam Howell did have a big second half once they did let him air it out more, it wasn’t necessarily indicative of how he’s going to perform the rest of the season for many reasons. That’s where this game comes in.
Mack Brown and Phil Longo plan to “let Howell loose” against the Hurricanes, which may or may not be a fruitful decision. Howell should absolutely just play his game and do what he can as a quarterback, but Miami also returns a number of starters from last year’s top ten defense. The way I look at it, Howell’s performance will either tell us a lot about him if it goes well, or it won’t tell us all that much if their front seven destroys him for four quarters. For what it’s worth the Hurricanes only logged one sack against Florida, but also they are the 11th best team in the country.
To put it simply: Sam Howell’s ideal performance in this game would be not turning the ball over, not getting killed when he runs, and putting up respectable numbers through the air. He doesn’t have to be outstanding to give the Heels a chance, but he does need to give them a chance regardless. Hopefully the unchained version of Sam Howell will be able to keep the turnover chain in the back of Miami’s team bus.
Navigating Miami’s offensive line
Going along with the theme of Miami losing to one of the top teams in the country, the other takeaway from their game against Florida was that their offensive line looked really, really bad. The Gators sacked redshirt freshman QB Jarren Williams 10 times, which is mostly accredited to how young the Hurricanes’ offensive line is. Four of the five starting linemen are underclassmen, and they have two freshmen starting at the tackle positions. It’s a highly sub-optimal situation for them, and it might not be any easier for them against Jay Bateman’s defense.
The Heels were able to log three sacks total against South Carolina, with Chazz Surratt and Aaron Crawford being the only players to be credited for solo sacks. Sacks aside, the Heels did a good job putting pressure on Jake Bentley for a good chunk of the game, and if Miami’s offensive line struggles to the degree that they did against Florida, it’ll be a long night for Williams.
Special team struggles
Let’s get the positive out of the way: Noah Ruggles was 3-3 in field goal attempts against the SCAR, with his longest field goal being from 24 yards away. Did that make you feel good? Yeah, ok, me neither. Mostly because the special teams unit was abysmal for the Tar Heels and things would’ve went a lot smoother had they been able to put South Carolina in worse situations when punting. Though let’s not forget that blocked field goal either, because I’m concerned that it won’t be the last time we see that either.
The good news is that according to Inside Carolina Mack Brown has addressed the issue, putting Dominique Ross, Myles Dorn, and Myles Wolfolk on special teams. Aside from getting players like Ross back involved after serving a one-game suspension, the thought behind the changes was replacing youth with experience. If Brown’s adjustments made throughout the week can get this unit to perform respectably, then it’ll make the other two units’ jobs much, much easier.