FIrst things first: This article is not going to mention opt-outs, particularly not in the context of blaming them for the loss, calling players who didn’t play names, or complaining about people quitting on their unpaid overtime for which they didn’t even get the normal amount of bowl game perks, compensation, or opportunity to get into game shape. Any such comments will be ruthlessly moderated.
I think that game was probably about what we could have expected from this matchup, if not better. Texas A&M is the 11th-most talented team in the country, according to 247Sports’ talent calculator, and UNC is 22nd — and most of that manifests in the trenches, where UNC’s upperclassmen are easily the lower end of its talent and the same is not the case for TAMU (or most good programs, but that issue with a previous regime’s recruiting has been over-litigated at this point). Given that, the fact that the Heels were a couple of easily makeable plays away from winning the game going away is encouraging, particularly with the promise being shown on the trenches for next year and beyond. But losing this game, given the opportunity to win by some perspectives the program’s biggest game in 70 years (ACC Championship games could be considered more important, in my opinion), still leaves a bitter taste. Let’s evaluate:
Sam Howell looked off at times on Saturday, floating and overthrowing some passes, especially in the intermediate areas, he normally zips to the spot they need to get. Part of this was probably due to the duress he was pretty constantly under, but he also just didn’t look as smooth as a passer as he usually does, except on deep balls (as usual). He started the game inauspiciously, with an interception that looked like he changed his mind about where he wanted to pass mid-throw and went between his receivers at two levels. The rest of his 12 misses weren’t nearly as awful, though some were unfortunate (like the end zone fade to Khafre Brown that needed to be a touch longer) and some of his tosses were simply gorgeous: both caught, such as his touchdown dimes to Dazz Newsome and Josh Downs (twice), and the uncaught, like Khafre Brown’s drop that would have given the Heels a 34-28 lead in the fourth quarter. Like I’ve said before, it was the kind of day that wasn’t elite, but lets you know that you have an elite quarterback just thanks to the kind of throws that he sometimes makes. As a runner, he made some plays early on but was quickly bottled up once TAMU’s athletic linebackers adjusted to his running ability - he’s listed with 12 rushes for 25 yards, but 4 of those were sacks (one a huge one). He popped an 18-yarder at one point, which was pretty nice, and showed good ball security despite his unwillingness to slide.
Running Backs: D
We had seen glimpses of what British Brooks, Elijah Green, and Josh Henderson could do throughout the season, and those glimpses were pretty promising: at the very least, all were getting the yards that had been blocked for them, and Green particularly showed some real burst and toughness while Brooks had a real maturity to his running. Brooks was the starting and primary running back in the game, and while he started out with some good runs where he pretty much took what was available to the tune of 36 yards on his first 7 rushes, he was pretty much bottled up after about midway through the second quarter, and gained only 17 yards on his next 8 attempts. Henderson spelled him and was probably even worse, never going for more than 5 yards and taking his 6 attempts for just 15 yards — including, unfortunately, a failed fourth-and-one conversion where he had 3 yards of space in front of him, but banged his feet on the ground and let defenders catch up to him rather than just hitting the hole. Both were also underwhelming as receivers, though they were put in tough situations several times: Brooks would have had to make a leaping grab over his head on his lone target, for example. This was a chance for UNC to see what it has at running back after this year’s starters leave for the NFL, and while early returns were good, but this game does feel like it might have erased some good will.
With this position group more than anything else, what a rollercoaster. Khafre Brown and Josh Downs look like really strong building blocks for the future, combining for 6 catches for 131 yards and two touchdowns (both to Downs), consistently creating separation and showing chemistry with Howell. On the downside, while Downs caught all 4 of his targets, Brown was targeted 5 times and had two drops — one on the aforementioned fade that could have been placed better but also could have been taken away from the defensive back, and one on the aforementioned touchdown opportunity that went right through his hands with nobody within 5 yards of him. Brown wasn’t the only player who suffered drops, as Antoine Green misjudged a freelance deep ball and let it fly over his head through his fingertips, Garrett Walston couldn’t haul in a couple of midrange targets in traffic, and Emery Simmons missed out on his sole target as well. Walston was slightly more involved in the offense than he was for most of the year, with 4 catches for 32 yards and a long of 14, consistently moving the chains. And Dazz Newsome, in his final action as a Heel, put in a typical Newsome line of 6 catches for 68 yards and a jaw-dropping touchdown, and missed a deep target that he just couldn’t get to (TAMU was called for roughing the passer on the play, so it didn’t actually count).
Offensive Line: C-
While UNC’s offensive line is better-equipped than its defensive line to go up against elite oppositions, it still wasn’t pretty without notable individual running back talent. Run blocking is supposed to be this unit’s strength, but they quickly started getting stonewalled after a few initially successful runs by Texas A&M’s vaunted defensive front, and non-QB runs amassed a paltry 76 yards, a real disappointment for a team that had averaged over 200 over the course of the season. And this inability to run block shined an even uglier light on the group’s pass protection, which, as I’ve mentioned before, is only as strong as its weakest link. And this game as in most games this season, that link was Asim Richards, who was consistently on the losing end of his trench battles, got called for a false start or two, and, on the final drive, was the primary culprit for two sacks when A&M rushed just 3. Brian Anderson has been much better this year than last but his limitations really showed up in this game against elite talent, as he had his face crossed several times for both run stuffs and early pressures in the passing game. Howell was under duress consistently, was sacked four times, and had three passes batted down at the line because his offensive line wasn’t keeping defenders occupied long enough. The entire unit is coming back, but I hope also to see improvement, particularly in the passing game.
Defensive Line: C-
Well, this is where it was definitely going to get rough. This unit actually comported itself pretty well for about 3 and a quarter quarters, holding the Aggies around just 4 yards a carry rushing and putting Kellen Mond under reasonable pressure - they’d suffered just 4 sacks all season, so the line even getting one courtesy of Tomon Fox was a victory, and they set the edge well for another two coming on blitzes. But eventually, through a combination of personnel and scheme adjustments by the Aggie offense in the rushing game and the defense just getting worn down, A&M started owning the line of scrimmage more and more, culminating with a Devon Achane 78-yard touchdown run that pretty much broke the Heels’ backs - but even before that, in both the air and on the ground, the Aggies were getting pretty much whatever they wanted. Ray Vohasek had a tackle for loss and a pass breakup, Tomon Fox had 5 tackles and a QB hurry in addition to the sack that moved him into 5th in UNC history for career sacks (21, tied with Lawrence Taylor), and younger brother Tomari had 3 tackles but was injured early.
A lot of fans have been clamoring to see more of Eugene Asante pretty much since he arrived on campus but definitely this year, and he mostly delivered on the promise. He had a shaky start as he adjusted to the big stage and, probably, to playing college football in a sustained way at all, but by the end of the game he was UNC’s leading tackler with 10 (7 solo) and showing off really good east-west speed even though he wasn’t getting penetration like UNC’s linebackers need to if they’re at their best. Still, a lot of promise for next year was shown in the sophomore’s play. Jeremiah Gemmel, however, disappointed, with just 4 tackles (one solo) and generally getting swallowed up by A&M’s offensive line getting to the second level. He made a couple of great plays in edge-setting and breaking through the line, but the bad outweighed the good. And Ja’Qurious Conley, playing a kind of nickelbacker role, looked pretty lost in the lights on the big stage, looking unsure of the playcall multiple times and a lot slower to the ball than he had been in his slowly increasing action towards the end of the regular season. I’m still extremely excited for what he can do with a real offseason and more time in a college weight room, but for him, like for the running backs, this was a game to forget — and hopefully one he won’t let define him.
Tony Grimes, have yourself a day. The true freshman showed absolutely no signs of the stage being too big for him, locking up whoever he was assigned to, frequently on an island, and earning PFF’s highest grade of the game for a Tar Heel. He had two pass breakups, three solo tackles, and a sack where he chased down Kellen Mond from the far side of the field and stopped a near-certain first down. The rest of the secondary, unfortunately, did not fare as well. Trey Morrison was roasted several times both before and after the catch, and while he had 7 tackles, most of them were after big gains, and he also had at least one penalty. Cam’Ron Kelly was out of position several times, allowing deep completions that had no right to be completed. And on the other side of Grimes, Kyler McMichael was sonned by Ainias Smith to the tune of 6 receptions and 125 yards, including a 54-yarder. Grimes’ excellence, which A&M seemed not to expect, kept Mond’s statline looking respectable from a defensive standpoint rather than great, but outside of him, they weren’t good. And as the most senior unit on the defense, I think I have more questions here than any other position group going into the offseason.
Special Teams: A-
I think that might have been UNC’s best special teams game of the year! Grayson Atkins barely got an opportunity to mess up, with no kick longer than a 32-yard field goal from the right hash (and given that he’s been hooking kicks left all year, right hash is where I want him kicking most). Dazz Newsome got in a nifty punt return that netted 23 yards, after struggling all year to find any space with the blocking his team has afforded him. Ben Kiernan punted four times for a healthy, if not outstanding, 43.8 yards per punt. There was a weird time when UNC was forced to punt from plus territory and ran Kiernan close to the line of scrimmage before he pooched it to the Aggies’ 13, in a play that looked very weird but worked okay. And A&M didn’t break any returns, trying to return 2 punts and only getting 4 yards on the two combined. Good stuff. I’m curious to see how the return game evolves next year, with a full year of Jovan Dewitt (if he remains) teaching, but Newsome leaving after being a stalwart punt returner for several years.
We’ve seen what it looks like when Mack Brown and his staff believe that their team is operating at a talent disadvantage: lots of deep shots on offense to introduce enough randomness that maybe you can come out on top, lots of fire zones on defense to keep offenses guessing and hoping quarterbacks make mistakes, and generally lots of gambling. We saw it against Clemson last year, where it mostly worked, and against Notre Dame this year, where it mostly didn’t. We didn’t see it against Miami, which was the right decision, and I don’t think we saw it a lot against A&M until the back third of the game, where I’m less sure: The Heels hung around for a while, but they were clearly gassed by the end on both sides of the ball: I don’t think they could just play with a clearly more talented, more battle-tested team. Especially on offense, I think Phil Longo adjusted to this after halftime, we saw a lot more deep shots, most of them either successful or should’ve-been-successful, and a lot less running the ball and playing UNC’s regular offense, that is, playing into A&M’s strength. Jay Bateman, with less to work with, couldn’t really do the same, unfortunately, and the effects of wearing down were more clearly seen on his side of the ball — he tried to dial up some extra pressures, but the secondary just couldn’t hold up without all the help it could get. You can quibble about a couple individual decisions, and the red zone calls from Longo really were perplexing at times when he decided on runs that looked doomed from the start, but the other options didn’t look great when they happened, either: I think that’s just an example of Longo needing talent to win out in condensed spaces, and he just didn’t have that in the end. Is failing to compensate for that a mark against him? Sure, but for a team that was 17th in the country in red zone efficiency, I’m not too mad. And the way recruiting is going, I think he’ll have all the toys he wants in those situations sooner rather than later. This coaching staff is slowly turning this team into what it wants it to look like, and we get to dream about it for 8 months now. Yay!