Carolina fans were nervous. The Tar Heels had been stout against the run in their first two games, despite their defensive line that is not a top unit in the ACC. They were up against a Virginia Tech team that runs the ball for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and have at their disposal three of the same things UNC football fans hate most: a running quarterback.
No matter. Carolina dictated terms in this Coastal Division rivalry game, racing to a 21-0 lead, punching the Hokies in the beak, slapping them in the snoot, and flicking their wattle. A fluke tipped pass that led to a VT touchdown, followed by a perfectly executed onside kick and another touchdown made the third quarter a little dicier than most Tar Heel fans would care for, but in the end, this turkey was always going to be cooked on time.
UNC’s offense was like a fine, Italian sports car that sputtered a little when shifting gears. Dropped third-down passes that would have been first-down catches stalled out the offense on several instances, and gave Virginia Tech the hope they needed to not capitulate. Mack Brown will be delighted that he has things that can be fixed fairly easily, and the second game bounce that Carolina was robbed of (thanks to the cancelled Charlotte game) has arrived. And how! Let’s get to it!
Quarterback: A+ with a 5 on the AP test
This is the Sam Howell Carolina fans expected to see at the start of the season. He was magnificent. UNC’s offense was always going to be the best antidote for Virginia Tech’s running game. If Sam Howell could direct the offense efficiently and score touchdowns on most drives, the Hokies could not score enough points fast enough to keep up. Once the Heels got up three touchdowns to start the game, the contest was mostly set.
Howell managed the game like a seasoned pro. Unlike the first two games against Syracuse and Boston College, he did not force his long throws, and was happy to start off by completing the underneath stuff for steady, rhythmic first downs. He spread the love between his wide receivers and running backs. He was also finally able to hit Dyami Brown over the top on two long touchdowns.
Howell’s gaudy statistics (18/23 with at least three drops, 257 yards and three touchdowns that should be four from Dazz Newsome’s “rushing” touchdown) would have been even better if it weren’t for untimely drops that killed drives. If Virginia Tech kept pace in the first quarter, Howell likely would have thrown more. Pro Football Focus puts his display yesterday into perspective:
Sam Howell's 152.8 passer rating vs Virginia Tech is the highest single-game mark in his career. pic.twitter.com/21tckPkSlp— PFF College (@PFF_College) October 10, 2020
Running Backs: A+, Class Valedictorians
There can’t be a better running back duo in college football, can there? VT’s defense was like poor Marty Jannetty here, getting pounded by two behemoths whenever they touched the ball. Thanks to some great offensive line play and gritty, determined, downfield blocking from the wide receivers, Michael Carter and Javonte Williams were busting big gains all day.
Carter was able to break his touchdown duck, too. On the first drive, Javonte vultured a Carter touchdown after Carter advanced the ball from the 20 to the one yard-line. Carter has seen this play situation play out too many times, so in the second half, he got into the endzone himself on 16 and 62 yard runs.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends: B
When you bring a Dollar Store secondary to Kenan, Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome will make you pay Harrods prices.
HE MAKES IT LOOK SO EASY— ESPN College Football (@ESPNCFB) October 10, 2020
Sam Howell connects with Dyami Brown for a 43-yard TD right before the half! pic.twitter.com/1i6ItQneRr
The two star wide receivers both scored a pair of touchdowns to keep VT’s defense from keying on UNC’s running backs. Brown in particular had some head-scratching drops that killed drives and kept VT in the game longer than they should have been. The drops were bad enough to cost the receiving corps a whole letter grade.
Overall, the receivers only totaled 14 catches (the running backs had the other four) but they did compile 187 yards for a 13.4 YPC average. That’s good enough to get the job done.
Garrett Walston had his customary one catch in the first quarter, on Phil Longo’s scripted opening drive. He did block well, as did the wide receivers. It was especially fun to see 185-pound Dazz and 190-pound Dyami putting in work downfield. The more robust Beau Corralis blocked beautifully on Dazz Newsome’s headflip touchdown. The receivers were sealing off lanes for the running backs, and seemed to relish their task.
Offensive Line: A
When the offense rushes for a combined 399 yards on a 9.3 yards average and only surrenders one sack, you get an A, period. Carolina benefitted greatly from the return of left guard Joshua Ezeudu. After a few miscues in the first half (Ezeudu was flagged for two false starts) he settled in nicely and mashed highways for the Gruesome Twosome and kept Sam Howell unmolested to carve up the awful Hokie secondary.
On several long runs that UNC bounced to the outside, it was really beautiful to see all five linemen sealing the VT defensive line, Walston sealing a linebacker, and the wideouts blocking defensive backs in some measure. It was like an orchestra playing in perfect harmony.
Defensive Line: C+
UNC’s defensive line was underwhelming for most of the game. Virginia Tech’s offensive line, which is designed to run block literally all day long, was getting good push whenever they needed to. Tar Heel linebackers filled in the holes, but the number of quarterback hits in the backfield were way down compared to Boston College.
Fortunately for the Heels, the defensive line did not need to dominate the game for Carolina to win. They just couldn’t let Virginia Tech score at will, or score quickly. They kept that part of the bargain going for most of the game, save for the fluky sequence in the third quarter with the two scores sandwiching the recovered onside kick.
Speaking of sandwiches, Tomari Fox and his brother Tomon just about sandwiched Hendon Hooker for Carolina’s only sack of the game on a 3rd and 10 in the fourth quarter, forcing a VT punt. The Fox brothers were like Earl and Seth Thomas on that play. Let’s hope that the Fox boys do all their double-teaming on the field, though.
Tomari Fox paced the defensive line with five tackles and sack, but Jahlil Taylor caught the eye with hard hits on his way to four tackles. Xach Gill also proved that he’s willing to do whatever it takes to win when he brought down Khalil Herbert from behind by nearly pulling his pants down.
It was an uncharacteristically quiet day from the linebackers. Just like the linemen, they were bogged down in run support to a team that has a better run offense than we do a run defense. Virginia Tech rushed more than three times as much as they passed.
Jeremiah Gemmel started off hot, making excellent plays in pass coverage, chasing the quarterback in run plays, and tackling running backs trying to go wide. But he also had more miscues and penalties than we’re used to seeing from such a heady veteran. He led all linebackers with eight tackles.
Chazz Surratt was fairly anonymous, and I found myself searching for him on the screen during the game, as I did not hear his name often. He only had four tackles after leading the team in tackles in the first two games of the season.
This was also the second straight game that a tight-end has gashed Carolina. Ja’Qurious Conley being out certainly contributed to that, but the linebackers need to help out on the underneath routes.
Defensive Backs: B+
Cam’Ron Kelly and Don Chapman both led the team with nine tackles each. That’s not good when the secondary has to make so many tackles. Granted, they were dropping into linebacker spots and getting hits close to the LOS, but if Virginia Tech had a competent quarterback who could locate throws downfield, the game could have flipped on its head.
Kelly was especially helpful in the second quarter when he made two straight plays on VT’s last drive of the half, which gave Carolina the ball with enough time to run their two minute drill. On the second hit, he flew like a damn missile!
Don Chapman was great in run support, and was terribly unlucky to have the pass he tipped somehow fall into the hands of VT tight-end James Mitchell for a huge gain. Also, the Rude Boyz in general were making fantastic hits near the LOS, but were whiffing on hits in the secondary. These missed tackles led to two Virginia Tech touchdown receptions with significant yards after catch. Clean that up, and UNC’s defense will be much more formidable.
Special Teams: C+
Jonathan Kim got a tackle after VT was able to actually return a kick-off from him, as a result of an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Dazz Newsome. That was good.
The return team giving up an onside kick that helped swing the momentum in Virginia Tech’s favor was pretty bad. Nearly giving up another one late in the game was almost unforgivable.
Carolina still has an annoying habit of playing games with an underachievement valley, but their hot starts and strong finishes do make for compelling television.
Phil Longo has gotten Sam Howell to not force the deep pass, and as a result, had UNC’s first game without an interception. The offense was perfectly balanced on the first drive, mixing five passes with six runs, including the touchdown rush. None of the passes were ten yards downfield, and Howell was comfortable throwing underneath and letting his receivers make plays in space. It was particularly helpful to get Dazz Newsome off to a good start, he had juice throughout the day.
With an 18-point lead in the second half, Longo’s first drive was all run plays, which led to a Michael Carter rushing touchdown, and also bled time off the clock. In the fourth quarter, when the score got even tighter, Longo had Howell clap-snap with no more than two seconds left on the play clock. It was excellent game management.
By contrast, Virginia Tech could only play one way, and in the fourth quarter with seven minutes remaining, their offense moved too slow and used too much time. Carolina showed an ability to adjust the settings on their offense that the Hokies could not.
Jay Bateman’s defense started off well, getting three and outs on their first two defensive series, and would have had a third, but Virginia Tech got away with a hold on a pass for a first down. The defensive issues manifested when VT finally made the switch in quarterback from Oregon-transfer Braxton Burmeister to last year’s Tar Heel nemesis Hendon Hooker. But in classic “bend don’t break” fashion, UNC made enough stops when it mattered to not only win, but cover.
Carolina beat a tough Virginia Tech team in front of a small but loud Kenan Stadium crowd. Now it’s time for the Heels to head to Tallahassee to pick up another road win.