Gotta say, this is a harder game than most to hand out grades for. Not because anything’s unclear, but precisely the opposite: UNC was, as many predicted, pretty thoroughly owned at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball for most of the game, which makes the rest of the game pretty much irrelevant to those of us who only have the broadcast view of the game. That said, I’ve got a job to do, so here’s my best attempt at grading UNC’s positions as they attempted to take down this year’s biggest college football giant:
This... might have been Sam Howell’s worst game of his Tar Heel career, which is saying something, because a line of 17/27 for 211 yards and a touchdown doesn’t look like it should be anybody’s worst career game. But watching him, except for the Heels’ first two drives, it was easily evident that the normally unflappable quarterback was being rattled by the near-constant pressure he was seeing, and a lot more throws were off target than his usual even when he was kept semi-clean. He missed Dazz Newsome high early on in the game on a designed rollout, for example, and later on threw a potential first down behind Dyami Brown. His eyes also weren’t at their sharpest, as he misread a fair number of RPO’s, which until now he’d been masterful at orchestrating. Credit to Notre Dame’s defense for showing him looks he wasn’t sure how to deal with, as well as for putting him under constant duress: Howell was sacked 6 times and faced pressure on more dropbacks than not. He had his moments, like the greats always do, like his bomb to Dyami Brown that set up a touchdown on a quarterback keeper not long after. But this will be a week to forget for him.
Running Backs: C
Like his quarterback, I guess Javonte Williams was due a down game. The nation’s leader in broken tackles and yards after contact was pretty much bottled up against the Fighting Irish, whose gap integrity and sure tackling were just too much for him to get through. He broke through once for a 10-yard carry, but his 10 others went for just 18 yards, including a truly bizarre 3rd and short where he appeared to have the edge on his defender but then slowed down to try and run him over - after Notre Dame had repeatedly shown us that wasn’t going to work. Williams’ physicality as a runner is only accentuated by the fact that he’s smart enough to know that it’s better to get past a defender than through him, but that awareness completely evaporated on that play. His running mate, Michael Carter, had a much better day, his one-cut style working really well against a defensive line that over-penetrated on him. He took 8 carries for 57 yards, and added a reception for 23 yards to his ever-expanding receiving reel.
Dazz Newsome, after a coming-out party against Wake Forest, showed that he wasn’t just going to flash once and leave for the rest of the season with another strong performance. His acceleration and wheels were on full display on a couple of swing passes and screens, including a conversion on 3rd and 18 via bubble screen that must have had Irish fans furious. He finished with 6 catches for 64 yards on 10 targets, in what felt like a concerted effort by the coaching staff to re-establish him in the offensive gameplan. Dyami Brown caught the aforementioned bomb for 51 yards and should have had another for 49 if not for a phantom holding call, but finished the day with a respectable 84 yards on 4 catches. And Emery Simmons, continuing to ably fill Beau Corrales’ role, had two catches, one of which was the first touchdown of the day: an absolute Mossing of a Notre Dame cornerback on a goal-line fade. He’s got a serious claim for best hands on the team, and the future looks bright with him headlining the next group of wide receivers after Brown and Newsome’s impending departures.
Offensive Line: D+
After holding their ground against lesser groups, the Tar Heel offensive line got spanked on Friday night. They couldn’t run their usual staple split zone because they couldn’t get the Notre Dame line out of their gaps, pulling guards were several steps too slow on the outside, and they only saw some success in the run game, like I mentioned above, when they managed to draw their opposition into overcommiting and whiffing on a one-cut back. In the passing game, you’re only as good as your weakest link, and left tackle Asim Richards, in his first season starting and his first season playing at a college lineman weight, is still figuring it out - which is to say, not very good right now. He can be very good with some more functional strength and movement training, because you see some flashes of him having really good agility and change of direction for a big guy, but right now he just looks uncomfortable and gets beat a lot - and that means the line got beat a lot, to the tune of 6 sacks of Sam Howell, 3 balls batted at the line, and constant pressure even from 3- and 4-man fronts. The ND defensive front is really good, and I don’t want to take away from them, but the amount of push they consistently got on the UNC offensive line pretty much single-handedly precluded the offense from being able to do much of anything after a scripted drive and a big play got them some points.
Defensive Line: C
The general idea of this game coming in was that Notre Dame’s experience and talent were going to allow them to rule both lines of scrimmage, and while it wasn’t as true when they were on offense as it was when they were on defense, it absolutely still applied. Jay Bateman did everything he could to help this group out: filling the A gaps with superbly-timed blitzes from linebackers, moving their alignments from snap to snap to attack certain weak spots in the ND offensive line’s tendencies, bringing blitzes from various positions to keep Ian Book guessing... and it helped, as Book felt a bit of pressure most of the time, but the line just wasn’t able to get home, with just 2 sacks on the day, and when you’re unable to get home against a mobile quarterback like Book, that spells a really bad day for the rest of your defense. Book also happened to play the best game of his career and get supremely lucky on more than a couple of plays, but the defensive line either had hands on him and didn’t finish or had their ankles broken without much effort on numerous occasions, and just a couple of those big plays being made might have made a difference in momentum regardless of how many stops the defense managed. There’s something to be said for a play where the defense wins, rather than manages not to lose, and the defensive line let several of those slip through their fingers.
The two inside linebackers for the Heels have typically this season played more or less together: when one’s good, the other’s good, and when one’s bad, the other follows. And that’s made sense, because their play has largely been a function of what the coaches do with them, as I discussed in their grade for the Wake Forest game. This game, however, Chazz Surratt was excellent, looking like the best version of himself that we saw last year, while Jeremiah Gemmel, even not pressed into coverage duty all that often, was awful. He was out-physicalled by the Notre Dame front, neutralizing his biggest strength, and so he was routinely washed out of plays and a step slow to make the ones he was free for, looking even disinterested at times. He finished the game with just 4 tackles (4 solo), but he did get two hurries — his blitzing was quite good. Surratt, for his part, got to be much rangier in this game than he has most of this season, and absolutely shone, helping hold the Notre Dame running game in check until the game’s last meaningful drive. He had 7 tackles (4 solo), a sack, and a hurry, and was also good in pass coverage. He drew the assignment of feared tight end Tommy Tremble, who ended up with just one catch for one yard. The team’s rotation of outside linebackers was also relatively ineffective as they struggled to keep contain on Book, joining the defensive line’s struggles. Tomon Fox had a sack, but only one tackle otherwise, and teammates Chris Collins and Des Evans combined for just 3 tackles more.
Before I break down the secondary’s play in any way, I want to make one thing clear: “Getting your head around” is something that a defensive player should only do when definitely in position to make a pick. If you are in trail position, or worse, already stacked, you absolutely should not try and turn your head when the ball is in the air, because it will slow you down and make you unable to make a play on the ball unless it is underthrown. It is not an essential part of playing defensive back, and it is not in any rule book that only a defensive player facing the ball can make contact with the receiver. Good secondary players use their men’s eyes to play the ball through their men’s hands, unless the ball is interceptable, which usually only happens on underthrows and comeback routes if you’re a cornerback. This whole thing where “getting your head around” has entered popular football fan vernacular because a couple of meathead quarterbacks made it to the commentary booth and decided that good defense getting penalized was okay if it looked dubious enough is a pox on the way we talk about defense, which is hard enough already. The rule is that contact is okay if a player is playing the ball, regardless of where their head is. Looking at the ball is just a very obvious way for a referee to tell that you’re playing it, but it isn’t and shouldn’t be the only way. If your justification for a PI call is that the defender’s head didn’t get around, it’s a bad justification, it was good defense, and it was a bad call.
Okay, now on to the secondary. Can you tell I have some feelings about this? Tony Grimes made his first start, which is wild considering he’s still supposed to be in high school. He acquitted himself well in the first half, then took some lumps in the second - including a pass interference call where his crime was looking at a receiver who tripped over his own feet. Oh well, Patrice Rene was introduced to college football with a bogus PI or two as well. (Okay, I’ll stop complaining about officiating now) Kyler McMichael had an absolutely woeful game on the other side at corner, being the primary victim of Javon McKinley’s 6 catches on 6 targets for 153 yards. His leading the team in tackles was primarily a result of tackling after being burnt. And Don Chapman, playing safety, wasn’t super effective, either: he made 5 solo tackles, but also got caught out of position a fair bit. It’s hard enough to defend against a pretty good quarterback who has a lot of time. It’s even harder when that quarterback and his receivers start freelancing every other play, and that certainly played into Ian Book passing for 257 yards. But on the other hand, several opportunities for turnovers just weren’t made good on in the back end. Again, there’s something to be said for winning plays instead of not losing them, and this group, as much of a work in progress as it is, didn’t do that.
Special Teams: B
Have yourself a day, Ben Kiernan. Wearing a message of equality in the incomprehensible Irish language on his jersey, the second-year punter overcame a near-block on his first boot of the game to consistently flip the field for the Heels. His 5 punts netted an astounding 50.6 yards on average, and he varied his kicks between those that emphasized hangtime and line drives with Carolina bounces that were kicked away from returners, all executed flawlessly. The rest of special teams were pretty unremarkable. Michael Carter fair caught kickoffs outside the end zone for touchbacks, which was good and smart. Dazz Newsome couldn’t do anything on punt returns, leaving several alone because they were headed towards the end zone (the Notre Dame punter also had a very good day). And Grayson Atkins, though he made me nervous a couple of times by sneaking both extra points just past the left crossbar, was dead perfect on his one field goal attempt from 42 yards out. I’ll also shout out Tony Grimes here, who showed off some serious bend and speed trying to block a Notre Dame field goal and ended up getting blocked into the kicker. I don’t know if it affected the kick, which was shanked wide right, but it was impressive.
First of all, Jay Bateman should pull up his mask. Second of all, after his unit getting toasted by Wake Forest two weeks ago, the defensive coordinator went back to what made him famous at Army — studying better offenses and teaching techniques and alignments for the game in question to attack their weak points, varying his blitzes and blitz frequency instead of playing fire zone 90% of the time, and playing sound, gap integrity football. As you saw above, it didn’t always get the results it should have, but Bateman did everything he could to slow down the #2 team in the country, and it mostly worked. On the other side of the ball, Phil Longo tried everything he could and nothing worked, because you can’t really do offense, especially an offense predicated on athleticism and finding space, when a defensive line is defining the line of scrimmage and harassing your quarterback. Maybe he could have called more max protect, especially after Notre Dame’s best secondary player exited the game for targeting, but with Notre Dame getting home with just 4 men and routinely bulldozing both Michael Carter and Javonte Williams in pass protection, I’m not sure anything would have helped. When he tried the quick RPO slant that’s worked every game this year, the Irish batted it down. When he moved the pocket, Howell looked uncomfortable. When he tried to introduce Howell as a run threat, the Irish linebackers were just too fast to get caught off guard for significant yardage. His only hope was getting big plays when they were available, and the Heels were just a couple of those short on Friday night.
So if both coordinators turned in excusable-to-good performances, what’s with the grade? Well, let’s get to the elephant in the room: Penalties. They’ve been a problem all season, and reared their head in particularly ugly fashion against Notre Dame: 9 for 90 yards. Now, before I talk about this, I must recall this ancient doctrine of reasoned fandom:
Some of the penalties, like jumping offsides on a 4th and 1 that was absolutely not going to be snapped, were inexcusable. And penalties have been a problem for long enough this season that you have to start looking at how this team is being coached. Mack Brown has had a full season, half an offseason, and now most of this season to instill his own culture, and by all accounts on most fronts he’s been uber-successful. So there’s not really a reason to think that this team being penalty-happy is a holdover from the previous regime; it’s just a function of how he’s running the team at this point. This team is extraordinarily well-taught: Every failing we’ve seen this season has been one of lacking talent or new personnel not meshing with the starters, not of being badly coached. It would seem that there is just an element missing from that teaching, and it’s something that Mack Brown had better figure out between this season and next.