Welp. Like a script that keeps getting recycled, the Heels walked into a primetime game they looked unprepared for all the way around, got into an early hole, and then couldn’t execute enough to make up for it despite a valiant effort. I guess the more things seem to change, the more they stay the same, huh? Anyways, here are the grades and detailed breakdowns for the week. Spoiler: It’s not very pretty.
Sam Howell started the game uncharacteristically off: he wasn’t making great reads on RPO plays, he was missing usually routine throws 10-15 yards down the field, got scared out of throwing with anticipation after the FSU defense pick-sixed him on a predetermined swing pass, and didn’t look as comfortable as usual managing the pocket. In the third quarter, though, he got back to his usual ways, picking apart the FSU secondary and hitting at all levels of the field, hitting touchdowns on a broken play to Javonte Williams and then an absolute jaw-dropper of a deep ball in the end zone to Beau Corrales. He stayed sharp in the 4th, and would have led a game-tying or -winning drive if it hadn’t been for a sudden case of the dropsies, but more on that later. Howell showed the cool demeanor that we’ve come to expect from him under pressure and nearly led this team back to its biggest comeback ever, but his early play was a significant part of the reason that was necessary at all. He finished the game 20/36 for 374 yards, 3 touchdowns, and the pick.
Running Backs: B+
Javonte Williams, have yourself a day. A week after his own career day was overshadowed by Michael Carter having the best games from a man in a UNC uniform that we’ve seen, Williams decided to just do it again this week, gashing FSU through the air and on the ground to the tune of 186 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns on 21 touches. He averaged 6.6 yards per carry on his 18 carries, and got 67 yards on 3 catches, including an absolutely gorgeous backshoulder deep reception where he looked like a seasoned wide receiver. Th e only blight on his day will unfortunately overshadow all of that when the team looks back on the game, though, as he dropped a sitter with nobody within 10 yards of him on the 4th down that ended UNC’s hopes at a comeback. His running mate, Michael Carter, was bottled up for the first time this season, with just 65 yards on 17 attempts and 2 checkdown receptions for 5 yards, as he couldn’t find a way through FSU’s linebacking corps.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends: B-
Sam Howell looked out of sync in the first half, but that was also attributable in no small part to the receivers’ failure to get open at any level of the field. Faced for the first time this season with similar-caliber athletes to them, the UNC receivers got jammed up and locked down, only getting free a handful of times on comeback routes and other short-medium routes. Phil Longo’s system of running to grass seemed to elude them for some reason, and the offense was stifled. After halftime, they started to get it, though, and Dyami Brown was back to his press-breaking ways, Beau Corrales got open deep a few times, Garrett Walston worked the seam for a nice play that I hope comes back regularly this season (and caught a two-point conversion where he adjusted nicely to maintain a throwing lane for his quarterback after sitting open from the beginning of the play), and Dazz Newsome worked the shorter stuff. Corrales was rewarded with the aforementioned touchdown, Brown absolutely roasted Akeem Dent in press coverage en route to a 25-yarder of his own, and then... we got to the final drive. Antoine Green drew a pass interference: good. Corrales dropped a catch while having his jersey tugged (wasn’t called): not great. Newsome dropped a sitter at the first down marker on 3rd down: bad. And then came the fourth down we already discussed... not the receivers’ fault, per se, but still. Just not enough playmaking from this group yesterday.
Offensive Line: C-
I’ll start this section with a disclaimer: Sam Howell, at times, made this group look worse in pass protection than they were but running away from pressure that was already handled, and into collapsing areas of the pocket. He only did so, though, because of how easily they let pressure get through most of the rest of the time. Howell was under constant duress, frequently breaking plays and trying to make things happen out of structure, and taking four sacks along the way. Brian Anderson’s been pretty good this year after I maligned him in the season preview, but his insufficiency against big opposition showed up again this game, but the primary culprit was Asim Richards at left tackle, who just doesn’t have the playing experience yet to lock that side down against talented edge rushers. As run blockers, the group was okay; Williams’ rushing numbers reflect that they were at least sometimes opening the lanes they had to. But you can’t succeed in modern football if you’re not pass blocking well, and that’s really all it comes down to.
Defensive Line: B-
The UNC defensive front isn’t what it was last year; that’s obvious. The losses of Jason Strowbridge and Aaron Crawford, consistent pocket-collapsers, have hurt this unit. Tomari Fox and Raymond Vohasek have been decent replacements, but they don’t have depth behind them, so they’re playing as much as their predecessors — and they’re just not good enough to handle that kind of workload right now. This FSU O-line wasn’t anything special so far this year, but the Tar Heel front almost never won the line of scrimmage on its front alone, relying on blitz after blitz to try and rattle Jordan Travis. And when somebody did get home to the quarterback, just as we’ve seen for years now, nobody could finish the play, missing sacks and tackles for loss while making Travis look like Russell Wilson. It was even worse in the run game, as UNC got blown off the ball routinely for the first 50-ish minutes of the game to the tune of a 9.1 yards-per-carry average for La’Damian Webb, the Noles’ leading rusher. Allowing that kind of day to Khalil Herbert with a big cushion was one thing. Against FSU while trailing? That’s cause for alarm for Jay Bateman and Tim Cross. I’ll say this: they did tighten up considerably when they needed, with a couple of goal-line stands and a series of three-and-outs forced in the run game when UNC needed it late.
Take what I said about pass rush above and pretty much paste it here. UNC’s outside linebackers failed to make much of an impact at all: Tomon Fox had 2 tackles including a tackle for loss, and Tyrone Hopper had 5 tackles, none behind the line of scrimmage, and two quarterback hurries where he couldn’t get Travis down. On the inside, Chazz Surratt and Jeremiah Gemmel were the most frequent blitzers called on by Bateman to finish the job the rest of the front wasn’t doing, but they couldn’t do much, either. Surratt whiffed on two big tackle opportunities of Travis that could have ended the Heels’ hopes earlier if the Noles’ kicker hadn’t missed a field goal, and ended the game with just 3 tackles. Gemmel fared a little better, especially in the run game, finishing with 7 tackles and most of the cleanup responsibility on FSU’s medium-length runs. Again, the short-yardage gang tightened up when it was necessary, but overall, this group was pretty ineffective.
Dialing up blitz after blitz to try and make Travis uncomfortable made it the responsibility of this position group to stay on receivers and not let them make broken plays happen. As you may gather from this grade and the above description of Travis, that didn’t happen. The injury-ravaged secondary was a step behind their covers all night, and they were fortunate that Jordan Travis isn’t a very accurate quarterback: he finished just 8/19. But, to show how dangerous he was anyways, those 8 completions went for 191 yards — it felt like playing an old-school Georgia Tech team. On the bright side, Don Chapman, who is quickly blossoming into a really good player, had the Heels’ one sack of the day, and Trey Morrison notched his “incredible play” count up to 2 on the season with a stunning one-handed, full-stretch interception (that somehow we didn’t get a replay of???) that put the Heels in position to put the game within a score with almost the whole 4th quarter left — forget about the missed field goal that followed for a second.
Special Teams: F(-)
Let’s just count the miscues: Two blocked punts, a missed field goal, no returns, an absolutely comical series of events ending up with a failed two-point conversion. There wasn’t a single aspect of special teams that the Heels looked like they knew how to execute on Saturday, and it may have single-handedly lost them the game. An early blocked punt gifted the Noles 7 points, a second one gave them 7 more (that one was a little more work), and Grayson Atkins’ 3rd miss of the young season kept the Heels 2 scores down early in the 4th quarter, which ended up being the game’s final margin. And honestly, this unit was lucky that FSU didn’t look all that great in this aspect of the game either, with 2 missed field goals from less than 30 yards in (though their punter did some very good work), or else they would have been responsible for a much uglier loss. I’ve said several times before on this site that I don’t agree at all with Mack Brown’s special teams philosophy, that bringing in Grayson Atkins was a nonsensical use of a scholarship with a rapidly improving kicker already on the roster, and that his desire to see big plays rather than winning in the small ways that special teams can consistently give you leads to getting bitten more often than not, and it burned him big-time in this game. The Atkins experiment has been a failure, as he’s hooked his kicks left all season to miss every attempt from over 40 he’s tried. At least Jonathan Kim keeps kicking touchbacks, if only to avoid miscues, even if that is a win for the opposition.
Let’s get the positive out of the way: Mack Brown can rally a team to action. The Heels faced a 31-7 deficit at halftime, came out of the locker room, and didn’t let FSU score again, all the while finding some offensive rhythm and coming awful close to a full comeback. That’s a credit to the coaches for getting their team to dig deeper and rally in the face of adversity. But other than that? Absolute amateurity. Phil Longo’s issues with “do-or-die offense,” that had so far seemed to have faded somewhat through three games, reared up with a vengeance against a team he couldn’t scheme to just out-talent: UNC was just 1/4 from inside the FSU 30-yard line, 2/11 on 3rd down and 0/3 on 4th, and looked like an absolute disaster on every two-point conversion opportunity that wasn’t the pass to Walston. Jay Bateman trusted a decimated secondary to cover for his nonstop blitzing, well after it had been proven that Jordan Travis would burn them, and that probably wasn’t the scheme for an inaccurate, mobile freshman quarterback anyways: He only went 8/19. Let him stand in the pocket and beat a 7-8 man secondary. And Mack Brown let his team down in key moments: he wasted two timeouts on the goal line, one during the aforementioned 2-point conversion nonsense (JUST KICK IT AFTER THE FALSE START) and one where UNC tried for low-percentage passes to the end zone twice on 3rd and 4th & 3 from the 6 (run on 3rd to pass on 4th, that’s crunch-time coaching 101). That latter stretch has Longo’s fingerprints as a decision-maker on it, but it’s on the head coach to overrule when he sees something fundamentally wrong, and Brown didn’t even after burning a timeout for it. Then again, I’m pretty sure I know when Brown did take over decision-making in crunch time, and it led to a 4th & 1 in the 2nd quarter where the offense lined up in shotgun, then bizarrely motioned into an under-center formation that was outmatched at the line of scrimmage from jump, and then ran Javonte Williams into a sea of garnet. It was, in short, the most doomed-to-failure short yardage attempt I’ve seen since the Colts tried to trick the Patriots by putting their punter under center with no protection, looked like nothing out of Longo’s playbook, and felt like a Mack Brown move to just try and get Javonte through the line of scrimmage, damn the numbers disadvantage. So maybe it’s for the best that he leaves crunch decisions to his coordinators. And that’s not even getting into the other stuff: a punt from the FSU 38, for starters. At least the penalties got cleaned up a bit.
Let’s hope this fires them up to call a better game against State, huh? This team deserves better coaching than they got yesterday, and the staff is fully capably of it.