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Tar Heel Hangover: A dose of reality

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Another difficult loss calls for a reassessment of the season.

North Carolina v Virginia Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/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.

Another prime time game against a one-win team. Another loss. These last few weeks have been very difficult for Tar Heel fans. What looked like a fairly easy stretch of the schedule has turned into pure disaster with the Heels falling from number five nationally to unranked. There are lots of questions for this team moving forward, which sounds more like rebuilding than rebuilt.

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

Following the Florida State loss, I have run a checklist in this article about Carolina’s path to the playoff. Needless to say, that journey is over. What has been clear over the past several weeks is that the lofty ranking and high hopes of fans were misplaced. This is still a very good team, but they are not ready for the big stage.

A lot of the blame falls on the coaches.

I will not rehash in detail all of the excellent analysis found in the weekly recaps on tarheelblog.com. There are some common themes, however. The offensive play calling has managed to handcuff one of the most explosive offenses in the country. Sure, there have been some points scored, but there is nothing wrong with putting up 50+ in a game and winning by 15. The defensive play calling has become predictable and ineffective. Too little pressure on the quarterback, too many missed tackles, too many ineffective blitzes.

And then there is the special teams group. To put the performance from Saturday’s disaster in a nutshell; the Heels would likely have won the game if they would not have attempted to return any punts. Just put all 11 around the line and do not send anyone back. That would have prevented the muffed punt fumble and would have defended the critical fake punt.

Speaking of the fake punt, that was clearly the key play of the game. Having come most of the way back from 21 points down in the second half, the Tar Heel defense stopped the Cavaliers and forced a fourth and three. The Carolina offense was humming and with two minutes left, a game winning drive seemed imminent. Carolina called time out to stop the clock following the third down run.

Whatever happened in that huddle, it was not good. Watching the replay is nauseating. The special teams group emerges from the sideline huddle late and never appears fully set before the snap. There seems to be a total lack of recognition that Keytaon Thompson is the upback. Perhaps no one recognized this because all the focus was on trying to get the defense set. The best play would have been another time out.

There were two minutes left in the game. That was plenty of time to march this offense down the field. The only play that ends the game at that point is a successful fourth down conversion. Call time out. Identify what is happening and stop it. Instead, it was another late game bungling on the sidelines that cost the team a shot at victory.

Key stat for the week.

34:34. That was Virginia’s time of possession. With over 200 yards on the ground, the Cavaliers chewed up clock and wore down the Carolina defense.

This is a reflection of multiple concerning trends. First, the defense could not get stops and get off the field. Those extended periods of play also make it very difficult to get a stop on a quick change following a turnover. Second, Virginia was able to comfortably run its offense. Faster scores by the Carolina offense would have put pressure on the Cavaliers to open things up a bit. A run heavy offense does not play from behind well. The longer the game stayed close, the more Virginia could play the way it wanted.

Looking Forward: A quick peek ahead.

Next up is Duke. This game feels like it is much more about Carolina executing in all phases of the game rather than anything that the Blue Devils can do. For fans, it is simply time to adjust expectations. There is still an outside shot at an ACC Championship appearance but the real focus should be advancing the program incrementally and getting to a good bowl game.

Final Thoughts

Saturday was very frustrating, but there is no time to dwell on the past during a college football season. Duke awaits.