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Tar Heel Hangover: Starting off the season right

NCAA Football: Syracuse at North Carolina Pool Photo

Welcome to the Tar Heel Hangover. This is our opportunity to review last week’s games, second-guess all of the key moments, and set the game plan for the week ahead.

The Elevator Speech: What happened last week.

The Tar Heels looked rusty out of the gate. Perhaps that is the nature of playing in a pandemic and starting the season against an out-matched opponent with no fans. Maybe this group is just still young and needs more time together. Whatever it was, the game was all too close until a fourth quarter explosion gave the Heels a comfortable spread-beating victory.

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

This would seem to be a great week for a head coach because there is plenty to compliment, plenty to criticize, and another big underdog on the schedule that allows time to keep progressing.

The first three quarters of the game were fairly reminiscent of the Tar Heel teams from a few years ago; bad decisions, bad penalties and bad plays. No where was this more pronounced than on special teams. A missed field goal, a fumbled punt by normally sure handed Dazz Newsome, a terrible return allowed for a score (only to be negated by a horrible Syracuse penalty) and a roughing the kicker headlined the mistakes. The roughing call doesn’t get recorded as a penalty, but it functions the same and the Heels headed to halftime somehow up three.

Those issues can all be fixed. Understanding the situations on the field and staying calm in the special teams game is about being comfortable and not making mistakes. The best news is that all of those errors only resulted in a single Orange field goal and therefore should not totally undermine any individual’s confidence.

The lack of focus showed in other areas as well. Nine Carolina penalties kept the Syracuse offense moving (a little) and prevented much flow on the blue side of the ball. Two interceptions by Sam Howell, to go with the punt fumble (and the roughing penalty) allowed the Orange to keep it close for far too long.

Then, of course, the fourth quarter came. Like much of last year, the team was able to shake off a shaky start and get down to business. On the first play of the final quarter, Javonte Williams capped off a rare sustained drive with a one yard touchdown score. The defense then forced a huge three-and-out, largely due to Tomon Fox’s sack, to give the ball back to Sam Howell. Howell completed two passes for 35 total yards, picked up 12 yards on a run, plus another 15 for a personal foul penalty, and Williams punched it in for another score. Another quick three-and-out and Newsome’s best punt return of the day set up a third fast Tar Heel touchdown. Howell went a perfect 6-6 on those three drives for 102 yards and the rout was on.

The key moving forward for Coach Mack Brown and for the entire team is to figure out how to bring that level of execution and intensity to the whole game. The undermanned Syracuse team was worn down in the closing minutes. Other ACC foes will not suffer that fate. It is great to end on a high note, but this team needs a more complete effort.

Key stat for the week.

Last year was the first time in two decades that the Tar Heels won against an FBS opponent in their opening game (Tulsa- 2000). Fans must go all the way back to 1996 to find the last time Carolina beat a conference opponent in the season opener. That year, it was Clemson (in a whopping 45-0 blow out) for a Tar Heel team that capped their 10-2 season with a Gator Bowl win and a top 10 ranking.

Despite an uneven effort, the key stat for the week is 1-0.

Looking Forward: A quick peek ahead.

The Tar Heels are a 30 point favorite for Saturday when the 49ers come to town. Yes, I listed Charlotte as a prime non-conference opportunity in this August debate. Charlotte lost its opener to Appalachian State, managing only 286 yards of offense. 91 of those yards were on the opening drive. The Carolina defense was put in some difficult spots last week but did a tremendous job limiting or eliminating the damage. They should feast this week.

Another pair that should enter the game with hungry eyes are Williams and Michael Carter. App State ran the ball 50 times last week and averaged over 6 yards per carry for over 300 total yards on the ground. Giving Sam Howell second down and short yardage is a recipe for a big offensive outing.

Final Thoughts

It was great to see the Heels return to the field on Saturday, even if no fans in the stands was an eerie sight. There is plenty to improve upon heading into another game that they should win easily. The key is to take advantage of the schedule, continue to get better, and keep winning.