Holy moly, y’all.
We’ve had a night to let it sink in and I’m not sure it has yet: UNC just beat a Miami team that was coming off a bye week, was projected at the beginning of the season to be the 20th best team in the country, that ranks 18th in 247’s Team Talent Composite to UNC’s 28th, and that outplayed the Heels for the better part of the final 45 minutes. Let’s see if breaking down the game, position by position, helps me (and maybe us) make some sense of it this fine morning.
At the final horn, this game belonged to one man and one man only: Sam Howell. For the second straight week, Howell put up gaudy numbers on a kind-of-limited sample size, finishing this week 16/24 for 274 yards, two touchdowns, and no picks (nearly identical to his 15/24 - 245 - 2 - 0 line against South Carolina). And yet, even as impressive as last week’s performance was, Howell looked significantly better in his second start as a Tar Heel. He unleashed a couple of early bombs to Antoine Green and Dyami Brown, both with perfect placement and trajectory. Last week, he showed off great placement, but let his deep balls float a little. Last night, he simply whipped them downfield exactly where they needed to be, and fired into tight-but-safe windows in the intermediate and short games with more consistency. He was pretty quiet after that, completing a couple of passes and converting a few running plays while the run game did the heavy lifting on UNC’s second touchdown drive that was capped by a short run into the end zone from Javonte Williams before the Miami defense starting forcing UNC’s offense off the field early and didn’t let Howell get in any kind of rhythm for about 40 minutes. Fast forward to 5 minutes left in the 4th quarter, and that cold spell didn’t matter for Howell: Williams got the game-winning drive started with a big run, then the quarterback completed a 4-yard pass to Brown before taking 2 straight sacks. 4th and 17. The Heels needed Howell to convert a pass play to keep going, and his two previous pass plays had broken down almost instantly against one of the nation’s premier defensive fronts. Howell didn’t even flinch. He dropped back, identified a coverage bust, and found Toe Groves for 20 with nobody around him. From then, the game-winning score felt almost inevitable, and yet it was still incredible when it happened, as Howell put another one right on the money for Dazz Newsome to make a toe-dragging play on in the back corner of the end zone. When he was needed, he marched his team down the field and earned them a victory that won’t soon be forgotten. That’s our quarterback.
Running Backs: B
Predictably, this game was tough sledding for the UNC running backs, facing a front 7 that might just be the most talented in the country. Throughout the game, run plays were almost entirely a feast-or-famine proposition, particularly for Javonte Williams, whose 10 rushes went for -2, 0, 0, 1, 2, 2TD, 14, 18, 19, and 22 yards. He finished the game with a healthy 7.6 per-carry average on the strength of those big gainers, most of which came at the end of the game while UNC was trying to put up just enough points to hold off the Canes. Michael Carter didn’t have as good a time, but he did finish the game strong with a 9-yard carry in the red zone to give UNC first down and goal at the 10, followed by his winning a sprint nearly the width of the field to convert the 2-point conversion that would give UNC a 3-point lead. What I’m trying to say is that as soon as they had an opportunity thanks to a tired opposition, both feature backs capitalized, and that’s why they get this grade. Carter contributed two great catch-and-runs for 12 and 7 yards, both giving the Heels first downs. Antonio Williams seems to have been relegated to a backup role for now; he had just two carries that went for 5 and 0 yards. We’ll monitor that situation as the season goes on.
When your quarterback completes 67% of his passes at over 10 yards per attempt, you’ve probably done a pretty good job, and that is indeed the case. UNC’s receivers looked much more comfortable with the offense and manipulating their routes based on defensive looks than they did a week ago, highlighted by Dyami Brown’s subtle hesitation move to spring him free on his long touchdown. Brown was again the Heels’ leading receiver, and he and Howell seem to have established a solid connection in the early goings. He had 4 catches for 80 yards and the touchdown. Toe Groves continued his solid start, too, with 3 catches for 41 yards including the 20-yarder that saved the final UNC drive. Dazz Newsome had another two catches including the game-winning touchdown, Beau Corrales moved the chains with 3 catches of 10, 11, and 12 yards, and all in all, Sam Howell found 7 different receivers as everybody found a way to get open at least once. Also, Brown got in on the action another way with an 18-yard screen pass on a trick play: to Sam Howell. The only thing keeping this grade from being perfect is a couple of drops, most notably one on a key third down by Brown that made the game feel in real jeopardy for the first time.
Offensive Line: B
The offensive line opened the game on absolute fire, moving people in the run game for some early positive Carter carries and protecting Howell so he could make the aforementioned blazing start. Pretty early into the game, though, center and group leader Nick Polino went down, and while he was replaced by an equally capable player in Brian Anderson, losing the combination of his leadership and chemistry with Howell, alongside a gameplan that seemed designed to hold onto the Heels’ early lead rather than add to it, seemed to do a number on the line’s performance throughout the game, as running lanes disappeared, Howell took four sacks and two hits, and the line of scrimmage was pushed back as often as it wasn’t. Power plays started to work again near the end of the game, especially a couple of great pulls from Jordan Tucker that allowed Javonte Williams to spring free for at least two of his big gainers. Overall, against a formidable front, the offensive line didn’t put up the clinic they did last week, but more than acquitted themselves despite a cold spell that infected the entire team.
Defensive Line: B-
It might be time to wonder if UNC’s front is going to have trouble stopping the run all season long, because for the second straight game, the Heels have allowed two rushers to take 10+ carries apiece for better than 5 yards a carry. Deejay Dallas was the star, taking 14 carries for 107 yards, and Cam’Ron Harris supported him with 10 carries for 60 yards and one of Miami’s touchdowns. Aaron Crawford has been really good at stuffing runs at nose tackle, but rushes going in nearly any other direction in the trenches were successful more often than not for the Canes, and this is an area that Jay Bateman really needs to work on fixing through scheme. The line was a little better in the passing game, where Tomon Fox is blossoming. His three sacks were, according to UNC’s stats department, the most by a UNC player since Kareem Martin in 2013, and he forced a fumble on one of them (unfortunately recovered by Miami) to boot. Crawford had the other on a rush where he got through too quickly for a reach block to reach him. The team hit Miami quarterback Jarren Williams 7 times, putting him under pressure frequently even if it didn’t faze him too much. In sum, the line suffered against the run but did their job in the passing game.
With Dominique Ross coming back, Chazz Surratt’s improvement as the game went on against South Carolina and the coaches’ effusive praise of him post-game, it seemed like Jeremiah Gemmel might be the odd man out in the UNC linebackers’ rotation. Instead, as UNC rotated liberally between the two in the first half, it was Gemmel who stood out more than any other defensive player wearing Tar Heel Blue, filling the right gaps, hitting hard, and, when necessary, saving touchdowns on busted plays by chasing down running backs. He finished the game with a game-high 14 tackles, 8 of them solo and one of them for a loss, and was simply everywhere he needed to be with the physicality to back it up. He played almost the entire second half on defense because he was easily UNC’s best at the position last night. Surratt and Ross each recorded 5 tackles and generally did their jobs as well, with Surratt showing a real knack for blitzing the QB (though he could stand to learn to finish). Ross recorded two QB hits as well. The one black mark on the linebackers is the game they allowed Miami tight end Jeff Thomas to have, as he got open at will and caught 7 of his 9 targets for 51 yards, almost all of those either converting first downs or giving the Canes an easy follow-up. Other than that, though, the group, especially Gemmel, did their jobs and did them well, and for a unit that was supposed to be a weakness, looked like UNC’s best position group on the night.
Jarren Williams, in his second collegiate start, completed 30/39 passes for 309 yards and two touchdowns, and while he didn’t often go deep, was able to beat UNC’s secondary on short and intermediate passes throughout the game, and he only got more comfortable slicing through UNC’s back end as the game went on. Trey Morrison individually had a great game, with two pass breakups and great diagnosis and finishing on a couple of wide receiver screens, but the rest of UNC’s corners struggled, especially in the second half after Patrice Rene lefjt with an injury. Morrison was the only defensive back with a pass breakup for the Heels, as Greg Ross and D.J. Ford struggled to keep up with their opposites. Miami’s superior talent at the position was going to make this difficult, but again, allowing 30/39 just isn’t going to get it done most days.
UNC’s safeties also regressed from last week, when they were outstanding. They bore part of the burden of covering Thomas and didn’t fare much better than the linebackers, overran a few angles in the run game, and were a lot more reactive (as opposed to proactive) to what was happening on the field. Myles Dorn and Myles Wolfolk were still good, wrapping up their guys, playing cleanup, and sticking a few wide screens, but they weren’t the difference-makers they were against South Carolina.
Special Teams: C+
Last week, Mack Brown said that just about everything that could go wrong in the kicking game did, and might well have cost UNC the game. This week, while there was still some liability from this phase of the game, a lot of those issues were cleaned up. Michael Rubino sent all but one of his kickoffs to the back of the end zone, which is only a good thing because of this team’s apparent distrust of its kick coverage. That coverage team did well on their once chance to do something, stopping a kickoff return for 15 yards. Noah Ruggles continued his good-not-great start to the season, hitting a 37-yarder and a 40-yarder along with both of his extra points but missing a 49-yarder. Dazz Newsome got nothing on the one return he did try and fair caught everything else, and UNC didn’t return any kicks. Solid C territory so far. Ben Kiernan, though, had another poor game, punting 4 times for a gross average of 110 yards, a paltry 27.5 yards per punt with a long of 35. Miami had a significant advantage in the field position game because of this, and it was fairly worrying while Miami started to put together drives where 2 decent plays could get them on the doorstep of the red zone. On the bright side, UNC’s field goal defense team busted through the line on Miami’s would-be tying extra point and blocked the PAT, maintaining UNC’s lead for several more minutes and giving the Heels an ounce of momentum that would carry them to victory thanks to how that 1-point lead changed the rest of the game. All that adds to... yeah, C+ seems right. This is a phase that will have to continue to improve for this success to be maintained.
This is as good a time as any to remind you, the reader, that this grade reflects in-game coaching only. That’s pertinent right now because it’s obvious that UNC’s prep this week was phenomenal: The team had just one five-yard penalty, the offense looked a lot more comfortable with Phil Longo’s scheme this week, and the resilience they showed in coming back on the final offensive drive (and standing tall after being initially gashed on Miami’s last attempt to tie) is a testament to the culture change that Mack Brown and staff have already instilled in the program, and that’s no small feat.
But boy howdy, do he and his staff need to get on the same page on gameday. After a first quarter where they allowed Sam Howell to sling it and get to an early lead, the offensive gameplan started to resemble what we saw in the first half last week, an uber-conservative one more focused on avoiding big mistakes than actually scoring. The offense failed to find any rhythm with a run-first approach against a run-stopping front 7, and stalled to the point of scoring just a field goal in the time between the first quarter and a minute left in the game. This staff absolutely cannot take its foot off the gas pedal in games like this, where they are the justified underdog, even with a substantial lead like 17-3. Howell has more than proven himself worthy of trust to not make debilitating mistakes, and it’s time that the offensive playcalling reflected that for 60 minutes. Additionally, the Heels’ clock and timeout management in the second half was absolutely woeful. They burned a timeout after trouble changing the play at the line, then another on 4th down that just led to a punt (just take the delay of game if you’re punting), leaving the Heels just one timeout for when it mattered. Fortunately, they were given enough time for that not to be an issue, but that won’t always be the case. And finally, numerous sources have reported that UNC sent the punt team out on 4th and 17 on the final drive, with just one timeout and less than 3 minutes remaining, before Mack Brown was convinced by Phil Longo that the offense would convert. The decision making process has to be clearer than this, and Brown needs to better study game situations, because punting in that scenario with one timeout with an offense you haven’t held to a 3-and-out since the first quarter is essentially surrender. This was all papered over by a great final drive, but this staff has work to do so that future gamedays don’t get this... stressful. But now that that’s over, let’s just enjoy this win. Go Heels.