If you’re like me, it took until about 11:00 AM Saturday morning to really get hype about the football season. Combined with the uncertainty of COVID results and the fact that getting UNC students on campus was nothing short of a disaster (which other colleges seemingly haven’t learned from by the way), it just didn’t feel right to put the emotional investment into the game.
Then the ball was kicked, and there we were.
This Tar Heel football team entered 2020 with more hype, and hype that only grew as circumstances changed a pretty difficult schedule into a really manageable one. A strong 2020 recruiting class added some depth, and one of the best offenses in the ACC took the field against a squad that was struggling to figure out who their complete team would be at multiple points. The Tar Heels never trailed, but...it very much looked like a game where you understand why teams usually don’t want to start their season against a FBS opponent.
Still, a win is a win and its nice to have football back. Let’s look at our inaugural W, L, & HM for week 1.
Defense: It was a complete role reversal from last year this game: the offense just seemingly couldn’t get off the ground, but the defense time and time again picked them up. At one point the color analyst said that Chaz Surratt wasn’t making himself known during the game and he ended up leading the Tar Heels with nine total tackles and two sacks. The Tar Heels had a grand total of seven, yes seven, sacks, and only gave up a total of 202 yards on offense. That’s a combined total, passing and rushing yards, of 202. Year Two of the Bateman system combined with significantly increased depth could make the defense a bigger factor than fans expected this season.
Rushing Attack: With the deep ball not happening for Sam Howell and the offense, it was important for the dual-headed monster of the running attack to push the ball. While they were stymied at times, Michael Carter and Javonte Williams picked back up where they left off last year, Carter leading with 80 yards on the ground and 60 yards in the air, while Williams bulled his way through for three touchdowns, all in the fourth quarter, to finally deliver the knockout blow to a tired Orange defense. It was important that against a defense Carolina wasn’t ready for that they were able to adjust, and the backs were there to steady a shaky Sam Howell.
Fans: Spoiler alert, you’ll see this one again, but let’s go ahead and acknowledge that it was amazing to see real competition with people wearing the argyle for the first time in six months. Yes, fans weren’t in the stands, and yes there’s still this weird sight of seeing coaches and officials wearing masks, but we all got closer to a sense of normalcy with a sport being played in the season it was meant to be played. It was even possible to enjoy something with friends if you knew how to do it in a socially distanced way, and for a lot of us it really was the most normal things had felt in a long time.
Fans: I’ll go ahead and flip the other side here, as it was painful to see all those empty seats in Kenan after getting a full season of sellouts and all the potential of this 2020 bunch. The sound engineers at Kenan did their best to mix the sounds between plays with pre-recorded cheers and songs from the Marching Tar Heels and other music, but it clearly wasn’t the same atmosphere at all. We may have been closer to normal, but there was no electric atmosphere around Kenan, no march to the stadium, no tailgating, no students going crazy going into the fourth quarter, and the lack of energy clearly showed on the field. Hopefully things in North Carolina will progress to the point where some fans can go to a game in Kenan before the end of the year. So, WEAR YOUR MASKS, PEOPLE!
Sam Howell: For someone who was a dark horse Heisman candidate, Saturday wasn’t a great resume builder for the sophomore. Two messy interceptions, the longest completion only being 38 yards, and a general confusion over the Syracuse defense was not a good look to start the season. The good news is that the defense helped a ton, and that he seemed to find his rhythm in the fourth quarter. It’s also worth noting the cliche that you can practice all you want, but it really is something different when you have to compete against another squad. It’s also a sign of just how quickly things have turned at Carolina when a 25-34, 295-yard effort by the QB puts you here.
Special Teams: New coach, new kicker, same problems. Grayson Atkins missed his one long kick, the big reason Mack Brown brought him in; Dazz Newsome absolutely muffed a punt to give Syracuse outstanding field position, and all of the kickoff returns couldn’t really get great field position despite zero touchbacks. There was also the almost touchdown given up on Ben Kiernan’s longest punt of the day if not for a totally idiotic block by Syracuse to negate it. The good news is that there were no PATs missed, all of Jonathan Kim’s kickoffs easily sailed into the end zone which kept the Orange from having any meaningful return, and Atkins’ kick hit off the post showing he had the distance and almost the accuracy, which should make fourth downs less of an adventure this season. Still, this group has some improvement to do.
Dyami Brown came the closest to 100 yards in the receiving group, and had the day’s biggest gain on a 38 yard catch and run, further reminding us all that this wide receiver group may be one of the best in football, and will be a difficult task for any defense to keep in check...Hey, did you know you could pass to the Tight End? Carolina apparently didn’t last year but learned their lesson in the offseason, as the lone passing touchdown for Howell came on a perfect route run by Garrett Waslton. The addition of that play in the arsenal could prove deadly down the road...one of the benefits of being bereft of depth last season is valuable experience that is already paying dividends for players like Storm Duck. Perhaps the best name in college football was all over the field on Saturday, used as a rusher on the quarterback and blanketing receivers down the field. He was part of a massive group that had four solo tackles and also led the defense with two pass break ups.
Man it feels good to talk about actual games.