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Tar Heel Hangover: Making a habit of winning

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Another week, another fourth quarter comeback. The heartbreak Heels from last year have turned into winners.

Miami v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

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.

This Tar Heel team is nothing if not exciting. After exploding out to a quick 10-0 lead and 17-3 advantage at the end of the first quarter, the Carolina offense went stagnant for much of the rest of the game until the final stretch. Having given up the lead with just under five minutes to play, the Heels marched down the field led by their freshman quarterback, Sam Howell. Carolina scored on a beautiful pass from Howell to Dazz Newsome and converted the two point conversion for a three point lead. Miami marched back down the field but missed a game tying field goal with only seconds remaining.

Water Cooler Discussion: If I were the coach . . .

Under the Kenan lights on the new playing surface, the Heels came out on fire. A raucous crowd and a confident team coming off of last week’s thrilling win against South Carolina created a phenomenal atmosphere. Note: say what you want about the ACC Network, but having a dedicated channel created the opportunity for a night game. Without ACCN, this match-up between two unranked teams would have been a noon game.

Sustaining the early success, however, proved to be very difficult. Miami dominated the second quarter and most of the second half. The Carolina offense slowed significantly, managing only 97 yards on the ground (but keep in mind that Miami only gave up 50 on the ground to Florida). Short offensive possessions led to long stints of time on the field for the defense with Miami winning the time of possession by about 11 minutes. On a hot night, the defense looked tired at times finally surrendering the lead late in the fourth quarter.

The Heels persevered.

Battling adversity is a skill that is bred from a winning culture. Mack Brown is returning that culture to Chapel Hill. And now his coaching challenge will start to shift. For nine months, Brown had to infuse confidence into a program that was mentally defeated. After two regular season games, he may need to pump the brakes a bit to maintain control.

Don’t get me wrong; these are two monstrous wins for a team that desperately needed to celebrate success. There will, however, come adversity. Howell has been a superhero but he will hit bumps in the road as a true freshman. The defense has largely limited big plays but breakdowns will occur. The key will be how the team manages through those difficult times.

On Saturday night, they did just fine. There are a lot of lessons to pull from the Miami game. First, the game is not over after the first quarter. Second, special teams plays can mean the difference between winning and losing. Finally, even when yards are hard to come by and forward momentum has stalled, stay focused and be ready. When opportunity knocks, invite him on in, sit him on down, try to be his friend.

Opportunity is knocking.

One last word of caution here; South Carolina and Miami are both good teams, but by the end of the year both could be struggling to be bowl eligible. Nevertheless, the Heels can only play the games on their schedule and winning certainly beats the alternative.

Key stat for the week.

Penalties and turnovers. Carolina had one penalty for five yards and no turnovers. When the yards were hard to come by, giving up any through penalties would have hurt. Giving up the ball would have been backbreaking.

These are signs of a well-disciplined team. Eliminating mistakes goes a long way toward winning close college football games. Over the last couple of years, silly penalties and bad decisions were frustrating and at times infuriating. That trend seems to be heading in the other direction.

Looking Forward: A quick peek ahead.

Wake Forest will be a very different test. The Demon Deacons are putting up nearly 40 points and almost 550 yards of offense per game. They have playmakers at all the offensive skill positions and will certainly test the Tar Heel secondary.

Taking some of the pressure off the defensive backs will require continued pressure on the quarterback. The Heels have done a good job of getting into the backfield with 7 sacks through the first two games. That number could be much higher. Getting to the quarterback is only part of the equation; bringing him down is the key. Finishing plays needs to continue to be a focus in an area that has left room for improvement.

Wake has given up over 450 yards of offense to Rice and a pretty good Utah State team. Victories in both of those games have elevated the Deacons to 2-0. The Heels should be a light favorite in Winston Salem for the unusual Friday night game.

Final Thoughts

The start to the season could not have gone better. Carolina is on a roll and has exceeded all reasonable expectations to date. Maintaining focus and continuing to improve will be the task at hand this week.

Go Heels!