It’s amazing to think that less than two years ago I was typing this. I was trying to talk to a reluctant fan base about embracing the return of Mack Brown. I cite Stewart Mandel giving the grade a C, and in our Slack discussion after the game I was reminded that C was actually one of the kinder grades from both national analysts and people on our own staff.
So on the day that Texas fired Tom Herman to set the wheels in motion for the Longhorns’ third coach since Brown left, you couldn’t help but to smile as Brown lead the North Carolina Tar Heels to face the Texas A&M Aggies. It would have been even sweeter if Brown could have notched another win over the longtime Longhorn rival school, but unfortunately the story couldn’t be that neat and tidy.
In UNC’s first major bowl appearance in 70 years, a back and fourth affair ended in a 41-27 loss. The Tar Heels finished an odd 2020 season at 8-4, but also made a statement that they belong on the national stage by putting up a fight against a team many felt should have been in the CFP.
Let’s take a look at the usual list for this game only, and then next week we’ll have one last list for the season as a whole. Let’s dive right in.
Sam Howell: The line for the Sophomore wasn’t his best, by far, but he had three passing touchdowns, and all of them were spectacular in their own way. The first one was all Dazz Newsome, except that the pass itself was in a perfect spot and led to perhaps the best highlight of the night for Carolina, if not the whole game:
The second was this amazing wheel route from Josh Downs, another name you’ll see again. Due to the work Newsome had done, the Aggies completely lost Downs and Howell made them pay:
The final score is stuff of legend, and shows the growth and ability of the sophomore. The play itself is clearly busted, even though Downs was meant to run down the sideline. Howell reads the pressure, gets some room, and then points Downs to keep going before dropping it in the bucket to the freshman:
He almost had four, if not for an unfortunate drop that we will get to. Howell matched the passing TD’s of Trevor Lawrence in the first two years, set himself up to rewrite the Carolina record book, and gave Tar Heel fans all sorts of hope for next year as he did all this playing with a squad on the field that only loses Newsome. Speaking of Dazz:
Dazz Newsome: The senior ended his career in remarkable fashion, unclogging an offense that had struggled and showing himself to be the weapon many expected him to be this season. He clearly saved his best for last taking a shot down the middle, making that remarkable catch for the score, legally screening A&M’s corners for Downs’ first score, and providing the first real good punt return in who knows how long. With all of the talk of the people who opted out, a hat tip to Dazz for making the trip and making the most of it.
Josh Downs: We have our answer as to who will be the speedster who can replace Dyami Brown. Downs went completely unnoticed out of the backfield for his first score, and then just launched down the field for the second score after Howell just directed him to go. He doesn’t get this chance unless Brown, Carter, and Williams all sit out, and he looks to be an exciting option for Howell next season.
Phil Longo: Only Florida, Arkansas, and Alabama put up more points on the stout defensive front of the Aggies than Carolina. You can quibble about a couple of the red zone calls before the Dazz catch, but Longo came in with a plan and it honestly came down to execution. Howell likely has another score and is closer to 300 yards if Khafre makes the easy catch, and the fourth down call to Josh Henderson was the right call, despite it not working. Longo’s playcalling gave the Tar Heels a real shot.
Jay Bateman: Speaking of good playcalling. Yes, the defense gave up 41 points to Texas A&M, but it wasn’t because of the scheme. Over half of the points-21-can be tied to situations beyond Bateman’s control — two of those being on a short field due to turnovers, and one being Devon Achane’s amazing run that ended up being the backbreaker. The Tar Heel defense had Achane covered, they just didn’t get him down. Time and time again A&M quarterback Kellen Mond seemed to be confused, barely able to get the ball free, and ended up being sacked three times after only being sacked four times all year. Much like last year, the defense improved significantly as the season wore on, and you were able to forget that Chazz Surratt decided to sit out the game. It makes you excited about what he can do with this squad next season.
Tony Grimes: You could point out a ton of the players on defense, but the freshman who should be a senior in high school put on a show Saturday. He was used on quarterback pressures, had two pass breakups, and one sack. It felt inevitable he was going to get a pick off, but Mond time and again managed to shake it off.
Eugene Asante: Seeing a lot more playing time due to Surratt siting out, the sophomore lead the team by far with ten total tackles, including seven total. The reps he got in this game going up against the offensive line of the Aggies were so valuable, and possible he wouldn’t have been used so much if Surratt played. Overall, the youngins’ recruited by the staff have started to show out, and more will be expected next year.
Unfortunately, we’re going to see a couple of these names again.
Khafre Brown: It would appear that drops from wide receivers transcend recruiting classes. Dyami Brown’s younger brother had one amazing catch for 26 yards and started to show out with the opportunity given, but his drop in the fourth quarter was the moment things changed for the Tar Heels. The Aggies had tied the score at 27 all when Khafre had gotten open on first down. The ball was perfectly placed and Brown just let it go through his hands. While the defense would force a three and out, the Tar Heels were never able to drive again, and the Aggies would score their other two touchdowns. You know that drop will stick with Khafre, and if it motivates him to do something better next season, remember that moment.
Josh Henderson: To be fair, he probably shouldn’t have been the back in the game at the 4th and one call that decided the game. British Brooks had shown out pretty well, taking advantage of lanes, and was a more punishing runner that could have gotten the yard running straight ahead. That said, it’s been the MO of this squad that when you have two backs, whichever one is in gets the ball. Henderson got the ball, and tried to spin one too many times when his best bet was likely to just go straight ahead. The failure to convert led to the Aggies’ final score, and sealed the game.
Eugene Asante, Tony Grimes, & Don Chapman: The backbreaking run was a direct result of these three not doing what they needed to do in order to bring down Achane. Chapman had Achane but didn’t wrap him up, Asante completely blew bast Achane and didn’t leave his man to help Chapman. Grimes, meanwhile, totally gave up on the play when he saw Chapman grab hold of Achane. The good news is that none of those players are older than a sophomore, and you can bet that play will be shown several times to them during the offseason. In short, you have to tackle better.
For all the worrying on how the Tar Heels would run the ball without their dynamic duo, British Brooks gained 56 yards and averaged a wonderful 3.5 yards/carry. Carries by Brooks rarely resulted in the Tar Heels being behind the chains, and it showed he’s at least ready to take on an increased load, which is especially impressive considering he only had three practices as the lead back...Trey Morrison and Tomon Fox had the other two sacks for the defense, and it was good that Fox was able to end his Carolina career with a stat that few had been able to ring up on the Aggies this season...after being a sore spot all season, special teams held their own Saturday night, as Grayson Atkins didn’t miss a kick, Ben Kiernan kept booming great kicks that kept the Aggies from getting any decent return, and Jonathan Kim booted all of his kickoffs into the end zone to prevent any runbacks.
As mentioned before, next week we’ll do a year-in-review winners/losers/honorable mentions to take one last look at a historic season for Carolina football. It sure feels like it’s the start of something building in Chapel Hill, and hopefully 2021 will bring us back into the stands to cheers these kids on.