While undergraduates across the country cram for final exams (not the ones at UNC, though, seeing as they took their finals before Thanksgiving), the UNC football team went down to Miami and made their final test of the regular season look easy, looking to know the answers to every single problem they were faced with en route to a 62-26 romp that, if the cards fall right, will earn the Heels a trip back to Florida with an invitation to the Orange Bowl. I won’t speak any more on that for fear of jinxing it, but for now, let’s bask in the glow of the program’s first top-10 win since 2004, and hand out some grades for how the team played. Spoiler: They did pretty well! (Full disclosure: on the back of a win that good, I’m not giving anybody worse than an A-. So sue me, I’m feeling generous today)
Is it a little unfair to ding Howell for a throw that didn’t count? Probably, especially given that an interception that was nullified by Miami not getting a substitution completed in time was his only truly awful throw of the day. Then again, it was immediately preceded by a near-pick that would have counted, so maybe this is fair anyways. Howell didn’t have to do much against the Canes thanks to his running backs choosing Saturday to be the day that they rewrote national record books, but when called on, he was predictably excellent, as his 14/19, 233-yard and 1-touchdown performance suggests. He had a handful of special plays, including two deep dimes to Dyami Brown, but his touchdown especially was one of those plays that just reminds you how talented this guy is. Either by design or due to a bad line shift, he was immediately faced with an unblocked defender, whose position he manipulated with his pocket movement so he could sidearm a pass around the pass rusher to Kamari Morales, who finished the job with some tough yards after the catch. He also ran for a touchdown (by the slimmest of margins) and caught one on a Philly Special-esque play, becoming the first UNC player to do all three in a game since Marquise Williams in 2015 and furthering his legacy as a Heel.
Running Backs: A+
I could just fill this section with tweets that take Michael Carter’s and Javonte Williams’ numbers from Saturday and contextualize them in increasingly ridiculous ways, to be honest. There are plenty of them, and they’re all equal parts hilarious and jaw-dropping. But I guess the simple truth is that as well: Carter rushed for 308 yards and 2 touchdowns and Williams rushed for 236 and 3. Both of them averaged better than 10 yards per carry on 24 and 23 carries, playing well past most backs’ point of exhaustion. They claimed the record for most rushing yards by a pair of runners in FBS competition, are the only FBS duo to rush for 230+ yards each, and became the first UNC duo of runners to eclipse 1000 yards since 1993. Williams claimed the single-season touchdown record, breaking Don McCauley’s mark that had stook for half a century. Carter is now 4th on UNC’s all-time rushing leaderboard, holds the record for yards-per-carry average in a single game, and will likely end his career as UNC’s leader in yards per carry over a career. Both backs were at their absolute best against the Canes: setting up their blocks in the backfield, squeezing through gaps, and making second-level defenders look absolutely silly. Carter simply toyed with them, like on his second touchdown, where he collected 4 ankles to go with his six points. Javonte did Javonte things, seemingly taking his less-than-stellar performances of the last few weeks personally on his way to embarrassing Miami defenders including what has to be a top-5 running play on the year:
JAVONTE WILLIAMS BEASTQUAKE— PFF College (@PFF_College) December 12, 2020
Given Howell’s coming-out party at the end of last year, I don’t know if we expected these two backs to be the stars of this season the way they have been, but it has been so much fun to watch them operate. They deserve every bit of this.
Nothing much to write here; the UNC receivers, like their quarterback, comparatively didn’t have a ton to do on offense other than block on the edges for their running backs. That said, they didn’t make a false step, and while Kirk Herbstreit called Dyami Brown out near the beginning of the game for a lackadaisical effort blocking, for the rest of the game they were pretty much perfect on that front. It’s not a huge deal for wide receivers, but it’s good to see. Brown was the lone standout on the receiving corps, with a bonkers statline of 4 catches for 187 yards and, somehow, no touchdowns - he was taken down twice inside the 15-yard line on deep bombs. On the first of the two, he executed a gorgeous inside release and stacked the Miami defensive back immediately, and on the second, an 87-yarder, he simply outran off coverage. It really showed his growth from last year, where the only way he really got open deep was through double moves - his improved release and route speed are great indicators for his future. Elsewhere, Antoine Green made a couple of nice plays and reminded us that he’s going to figure into next year’s receiving corps as well as Emery Simmons and Khafre Brown (neither of whom were targeted Saturday), and Kamari Morales scored his first Tar Heel touchdown with some strength. Oh, and Toe Groves threw a lefty touchdown to his quarterback.
Offensive Line: A
I have to say, it was pretty funny hearing Herbstreit repeat, throughout the game with increasing disbelief, that UNC was running the same guard/tackle counter play again and again, just continuing to execute by taking advantage of Miami’s defensive line being too quick to get upfield and winning one-on-ones. Against Florida State and against Notre Dame, we saw what happens to this offensive line when it is ill-prepared for a defensive front that’s more talented than it is. Both through a culmination of their growth this season and a much-improved gameplan, this game showed what this offensive line can do when they’re put in the right positions against a talented defensive line; they’re not so bereft of ability and athleticism that they can’t succeed. And succeed they did: while so much of Carter and Williams’ success this year had been due to their own excellent ability to get yards after contact, this time, an ABC graphic helpfully noted that both backs were getting well over 2⁄3 of their yardage before a Cane touchded them: a testament to how well the line was executing, as if a record-setting rushing day wasn’t enough. Both guards deserve special mention; Joshua Ezeudu and Marcus McKethan were simply outstanding both as pulling guards and in pass protection. They got to their spots on time and finished blocks, frequently bailed out their tackles, and generally stonewalled the Miami defense. The only reason that this grade isn’t an A+ is because the group’s physical deficiencies showed up a couple times in the red zone, resulting in short field goals rather than touchdowns: Miami’s one sack got the Heels off schedule after a first-and-goal inside the 5, Carter couldn’t get close to the end zone in 3 tries in an and-goal series that started at the 10, and Carter was dropped for a loss of 6 on 2nd and 7 from the Miami 13 that was ultimately insurmountable. But when every other drive ended in a touchdown, complaining more would be pointless.
Defensive Line: A
I did not think I’d see UNC’s front this year get pressure on the quarterback with 3 men, multiple times, in the same game — particularly against a top-10 opponent. And yet that’s exactly what happened, as for the most part D’Eriq King was under duress without much blitzing from Jay Bateman. He made some of it up himself and ran away from ghosts at times, but that he was seeing those ghosts at all is a testament to how much real pressure he was seeing. Kevin Hester has been a revelation recently at defensive tackle, pushing the line of scrimmage back consistently and getting King off his spots. He only recorded 2 tackles, but that’s not really his job. Chris Collins also had his hand in the ground for long stretches of this game after playing sparingly over the season, and he showed out pretty well, too, with the highlight of his afternoon being a nice pass breakup. The unit’s lone sack came late, with Clyde Pinder sacking the Miami backup quarterback to put a bow on the victory. But with a quarterback like King, you’re not going for sacks so much as you are trying to stop him from killing you once he escapes, and by holding up in contain and not giving him places to run, the defensive line did exactly that: King ran for just 53 yards on 11 carries, and never really looked dangerous. The rest of the Miami rushing attack was held to just 29 yards, which is seriously impressive.
Chazz Surratt is really coming into his own late in the season after a truly mediocre start to it, and he announced his presence early in this game with a pristine stuff on 4th and 1 on Miami’s second drive. He just kept his excellence up from there, primarily being used to spy King but also finding the ball most places it went. He finished with a team-leading 10 tackles (6 solo) and 2 pass breakups, playing almost entirely on the defensive side of the line of scrimmage for once. Jeremiah Gemmel had a stout game as well, playing closer to the line of scrimmage and paying it off with 2.5 tackles for loss out of his 8 total tackles (7 solo). His limitations in space were a little bit on display on a couple of plays where he was scared to commit to an angle on Brevin Jordan and got beaten for first downs, but he was integral to shutting down the UM run game and diagnosed and helped snuff out a swing pass or two as well. Coming off the edge, Tomon Fox had half a sack and a hurry but was mostly neutralized or put in coverage on Jordan, which had mixed results - though he wasn’t the victim of Jordan’s long touchdown.
Tony Grimes’ first interception! And what a pick it was, with the precocious freshman just ripping a slightly underthrown ball out of the Miami receiver’s hands. Otherwise, this group had a big of a mixed day. King was uncomfortable for most of the game, but did have some moments where he found time to throw, and found success at times doing so. The worst play of the game for UNC was Brevin Jordan’s 76-yard touchdown, which came after he got Don Chapman to badly bit on an outside fake before his post stem. Trey Morrison continues to have an up-and-down season at the other safety spot, where he’s out of position. He made a couple of quite good plays but also got taken advantage of a couple of times, including on Miami’s red zone packages. But the reason he’s playing safety is at least in part the emergence of Ja’Qurious Conley, who was simply a beast. He set the tone early by blowing up a screen to Jordan with all the speed of a heat-seeking missile, and continued to wreak havoc throughout the first half, collecting 6 tackles (5 solo!) and a sack in addition to the TFL on Brevin Jordan. He’s got a chance to be special. He did leave the game with an injury in the second half, though indications are that he’s fine. And finally, Kyler McMichael had a very good game, with two pass breakups and generally holding up in coverage.
Special Teams: A-
I have less to grade here than usual, because UNC didn’t punt a single time, nor did they try to return a single kickoff. I guess Michael Carter got enough yardage the old-fashioned way. Everywhere else, things were... fine. Jonathan Kim kicked all but three of his kickoffs out of the end zone, and two of the three that were returned didn’t reach the 25 anyways thanks to good-not-great coverage by the other 10 guys. Kim did have to make the tackle on a 32-yard kickoff return, though. The Heels’ punt coverage has been lacking all year, and Dazz Newsome should have had more than 2 punts to return. He took his first for a decent 8-yard gain, but his second was a bit of a mess as he tried to reverse field twice because his blockers couldn’t sustain their blocks quite as long as he needed, and ended up losing 7. And Grayson Atkins hit all his extra points and two short field goals, but missed a 37-yarder wide left that wasted the aforementioned Javonte Williams Beastquake. Overall, it was a typically imperfect game from the special teams unit, but even with a couple of miscues, you can see the unit evolve from detrimental to merely mediocre, and that progress is genuinely heartening.
While I’m sure neither Mack Brown nor either of his coordinators expected their gameplans to work this well against the Canes, they certainly came in with pretty much perfect gameplans, and the team executed. Phil Longo took full advantage of the Miami edge rushers’ propensity to get upfield and then try to bend by calling run plays (well, really just variations on the one play) that washed them past the action, and when the run was working as well as it was, just continued to erode the will of Miami’s defense to the tune of 47 rushing attempts between the two starting backs. Jay Bateman, finally getting into a groove thanks in part to infusing some youthful talent alongside the more developed upperclassmen, found ways to harrass D’Eriq King without relying on fire zones and constant blitzes, and made sure both to keep a spy on the dual-threat quarterback and vary who the spy was so that Miami’s offensive coordinator couldn’t reliably adjust to take the spy away through coverage. Even the team’s prep was good this week, as they were only called for five penalties the whole game - that has to be a season low. It’s an excellent note for the coaches to finish the regular season on — a rout that thorough only comes with really good preparation and a really good plan of attack.