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UNC Football vs. Western Carolina: Positional Grades

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Senior Day is for winning big and resting starters.

Western Carolina v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Last season, Senior Day at Kenan Stadium kicked off a period of absolute dominance for Mack Brown 2.0’s Tar Heels. Close losses to Virginia and Pitt were internalized and set aside as UNC smashed Mercer (our best friends from 2014) 56-7 in the middle of the monsoon scene from Forrest Gump. What followed were the two most dominant wins of the season; a 41-10 humbling of NC State in the parking lot of the Carolina Hurricanes’ arena, and a 55-13 Military Bowl win over Temple.

That three-game win streak is what led to a lot of pre-pandemic hot takes that Carolina could be a sleeper pick in the ACC.

Miami is nowhere near as underwhelming as NCSU was last year, and whatever bowl UNC ends up in will probably be a tougher matchup than last year’s Military Bowl. But with a 49-9 victory over Western Carolina, the Tar Heels are doing their part to repeat history. Let’s take a look at the positional grades from yesterday, of which I’m only going to grade the first half performance, as the liberal substitutions would wreck havoc on the overall GPA.

Quarterback: A

Sam Howell’s overall passing statistics (20/23 passing, 287 yards passing, 41 yards rushing, 2 touchdown passes) would be decent for any ACC quarterback for a whole game. He did all of that in the first two quarters before coming out in long sleeves for the second half.

What does Sam Howell mean to the Tar Heels? Pro Football Focus has an answer:

Owing to the level of competition, Howell was unbothered in the pocket, which is a nice change of pace after the hectic day he had against Notre Dame’s pass rush. Take a look at his touchdown pass highlights below: they look like he’s passing at a scouting combine. Effortless passing, good zip and touch, not worried about getting hit. It’ll be nice if he could look like this next week in Miami.

Jacolby Criswell and Jace Ruder looked rough at times throwing the ball. Jacolby threw a pick-six that was overturned by a dumb WCU penalty, and Jace fumbled a snap that led to a Catamount touchdown. It will be imperative that Howell remains healthy for the last two games of the season.

Running Backs: A+++

Gruesome Twosome

One last time for Gruesome Twosome Nation!

Mack Brown could have taken this game in one of two directions. Both of his stud running backs were in touching distance of 1,000 yards rushing for the season and they were going against a weaker opponent that would easily surrendered the necessary yardage if pushed. But doing so could risk a fluke injury, and with a dangerous Miami in the season finale, caution was the better part of valor.

Carolina was conservative with their running backs, giving their two stars a combined 11 handoffs. No matter. Michael Carter took his eight carries for 73 yards and three touchdowns (on runs of 17, 22, and 5 yards) while adding a catch for six extra yards. Javonte Williams was more active receiving, gaining more yards in the air (48 yards from three catches) than on the ground (three carries, eight yards, one touchdown on a three-yard run).

Like Sam Howell, the Gruesome Twosome got their work done early and became spectators for the second half. Javonte is not a senior, but this was surely his last game at Kenan Stadium. This is what I’ll look like watching Javonte and Michael get drafted in April/May 2021:

Wide Receivers and Tight Ends: A-

Western Carolina made the conscious decision not to let Dyami Brown burn them deep. His coverage gave him ample cushion. Despite that, Sam Howell juuust overthrew Dyami for a possible touchdown on the second drive after he got behind his primary defender and the centerfield safety helping underneath.

All of the offered space from WCU’s secondary was graciously gobbled up by Dazz Newsome. Dazz had room to explore the studio space and led the team with six catches for 82 yards and a touchdown. If horizontal running padded stats, Dazz might have 200 yards receiving, as he searched for angles on defenders to gain extra yards. It’s really beneficial that Dazz had a game like this today, as it will give Miami something to consider on how to organize their secondary next Saturday.

Antoine Green had his first catch of the season, and he made it count, stretching his arm out for a touchdown on a 22-yard reception. Some supporting cast members that will step into starring roles next season were in on the mix. Emery Simmons, Toe Groves (who also had a tsk, tsk fumble after a 17-yard catch) and Khafre Brown all got chunk yardage to move the chains, and the tight ends, Garrett Walston and Kamari Morales, caught three passes (a fourth was wiped out by penalty) between them for 41 yards, all leading to first downs. Phil Longo must already have Bryson Nesbit on the brain.

Offensive Line: A

Backup left guard Ed Montilus was out of the game and will miss the rest of the season. That news came as a blow to a team that has a short bench that would make Coach K proud.

Fortunately, Carolina could cope during this game. Miami will be a tougher ask. I’m glad that there will be a longer than one-week layoff between the Miami game and whatever bowl UNC goes to.

Aside from a silly chop block by center Brian Anderson that cost Javonte Williams a ten-yard gain, this was an easy day at the office. In the first half, Carolina had seven possessions. Six of them led to touchdowns (including a 4th & Goal touchdown run by an untouched Javonte). None of the drives had any negative yardage plays (sacks or tackles for loss). Only the fumble by Toe Groves kept the Tar Heels from going seven for seven in the first half.

Look at this hole that Michael Carter runs through for his third touchdown. Roy Williams could’ve scored six on that play:

Defensive Line: B

Western Carolina was a great opponent for UNC’s offense to get a light-sweat workout against. Not so much for the defense.

Jay Bateman has steadily incorporated promising freshmen into the lineup, getting them more snaps as the season progresses. Western Carolina had a surprising amount of push from their O-line and ran some tricky reverse action that fooled Carolina’s linemen.

Des Evans caught the eye with an engulfing tackle for loss. Ray Vohasek had the only sack of the game. Kevin Hester forced a fumble. Other than that, it was more satisfactory than superlative stuff from UNC’s defensive line.

Linebackers: B+

While Western Carolina got some push along the line of scrimmage, the linebackers were pretty quick to clean things up. The Catamounts had seven possessions in the first half (I’m not counting the final possession that they ran the clock out on after Dazz Newsome’s touchdown) and only managed to gain 137 total yards, or 19.6 yards per possession. That’s solid work!

It was nice to see a linebacker not named Chazz Surratt lead the team in tackles as well (though he only lost the lead by one tackle, finishing with six). Freshman Kaimon Rucker had seven tackles (four solo, two for loss) and was a general nuisance. Eugene Asante and Jeremiah Gemmel both had four tackles.

Two quibbles that could have been bigger problems if we were playing Miami: WCU running back Donovan Spencer really should have had a touchdown catch over Jeremiah Gemmel in the first quarter, but failed to come up with the ball; and quarterback Kason Lincke was slippery enough to avoid getting killed by Tyrone Hopper when the linebacker had him dead to rights for a ten-yard sack.

Defensive Backs: A

Dre Bly opened the flood gates! Eight different Rude Boyz made tackles. Here’s a video from starting cornerback Tony Grimes’ dad showing the secondary vibing:

The defensive backs did not have any real vertical threats to worry about. The Catamounts were not prolific with their passing either, only throwing 19 times. Sam Howell had more completions in the first half than WCU had attempts in the entire game. The longest reception that WCU mustered was a 40-yard catch that came from an end-around toss that fooled the entire defense.

This game was a best case scenario for the secondary; get some confidence, play all your players, and don’t get hurt. Patrice Rene did have a scary moment where he took some hard contact on a tackle and briefly went to the medical tent. Hopefully he’s fit against Miami, and perhaps, splitting snaps with a recovered Storm Duck.

Special Teams: B+

Jonathan Kim failed to reach the end zone on one of his kickoffs! He atoned by making the tackle, though.

Dazz Newsome had his best punt returning game of the season, returning two kicks for 32 yards, and stiff arming the poor punter Brandon Dickerson twice, after crossing the field searching for extra yards.

Carolina was too busy scoring touchdowns to give Grayson Atkins a chance at a field goal. Senior Noah Ruggles was back in the box score, hitting the last extra point of the day.

Western Carolina executed a dangerous high/short kickoff in the first half that Garrett Walston was fortunate to knock out of bounds before a Catamount could get his paws on the ball.

Coaching: B+

Today went about as perfectly as the Mercer game last season. Mack Brown summed up the performance and his decision-making after the game, saying:

“For the first time in my 32 years as a head coach, I didn’t start the the first offense to start the second half. I’ve always done that to start the third quarter. And today, I just thought we were far enough ahead, they weren’t going to score enough points, the game was over so we needed to see a lot of the other guys. So everybody on the team played to my knowledge. We tried to get everybody on the field, to make sure that this was a special day for not only the seniors, but everybody else that was involved... We’re making progress. You handled this game the way we expect it to and wanted to and let a lot of young people get opportunities to play. And then at the same time, you’ve got a huge challenge again with another top 10 team next week at Miami to see if we’ve made progress against a team with a bunch of NFL guys.”

Yesterday’s game was a great blend of stepping on a weaker opponent’s throat, getting starters some good reps then yanking them to avoid freak injuries, and getting seniors a nice send off.

The only hiccup that prevents me from handing out another “A” is the poor quarterback play in the second half. Sam Howell is obviously not under any pressure for his starting position. But the backups need to give the team some sort of lift when they’re put in. I’m not going to write it or speak it into existence, but we all got a brief glimpse of what our last two games could look like without Sam Howell on the field, and it’s not pretty. Phil Longo needs to say ten Hail Marys tonight, knock on wood, and hope that Sam Howell is good to go for the rest of the season.

Carolina’s Social Media Team: A+++

Well done with the socially distanced Senior Day tributes. I absolutely hate that we couldn’t have family on the field to get their hugs and roses, but such is life in 2020. Now, where did all this dust in my living room come from?