It felt like we were just here.
A couple weeks ago after the abomination in Atlanta, I talked about how there weren’t any winners. It would be pointless to go with that again, because as horrid as the game was on Saturday, there are a couple of positives to point out. We also need to confront the fact that even the best goals for this team — an outside shot at relevancy and a double digit win total — are not in their reach anymore. As such, it’s time to gather what scraps of good news we can and enjoy what we have left.
The thing is that once you’re knocked out of contention for a conference title, the rest of the season is all about trying to make a bowl game, as well as building momentum going into the next season. Coaches will give you the usual speak of “We have goals to accomplish, we need to rally together,” and so forth. Honestly the way the ACC’s Bowl affiliations line up, once you don’t make one of the NY6 games, it’s kind of nebulous over who gets a game over whom. The sad thing is that even as disappointing as this season is, should the Tar Heels qualify they’ll be an attractive pick as a team with NFL talent. Frankly that would have been how it would have happened if they go 7-5 or 10-2.
So, with re-adjusted expectations in mind, let’s look at what actually went right on Saturday, who took huge missteps, and even hint at what we can expect from here on out.
Josh Downs-Downs is a star and it’s really sad to see the consistent efforts he puts up game after game be wasted in a season like this. He was at it again on Saturday, catching nine passes for 121 yards and a beautiful touchdown back when we all still had hope of a great game. One of the better decisions by the coaching staff was to take Downs and put him in constant motion. FSU showed who was spying him and it would either reveal if Howell could go to him, or where the weakness existed in the defense. When no one else is willing to step up and take control, the sophomore is making a case to be team MVP.
Grayson Atkins-The super-duper grad student nailed a 51 yarder in the first quarter, combatting some inconsistency he’s shown throughout his UNC career. It’s nice to know that he can hit them from that far, and as his confidence grows it might be possible to take some pressure of Howell to know that as long as you can get inside the 40, points will happen. Atkins also came out to do the onside kick at the end of the game, and it almost worked as the ball went high and at least gave the Heels a chance.
My Liver-I got to go to the game on Saturday, but as the designated driver so that my pal could fully enjoy himself safely. Because of this, once I entered the gates of Kenan Stadium no alcohol touched these lips — and with the way that game went it’s a good thing, because I might be dealing with cirrhosis right now. You knew it was bad when my friend looked at me and said, “I feel really bad you can’t drink right now,” before proceeding to take another gulp of his Coperline Amber Ale. Hopefully others suffered along responsibly with me, because this team sure made that tough.
Khafre Brown-You hate to single out one player, and Brown was by no means the only reason the offense was mostly stagnant on Saturday, but his dropped pass midway through the third quarter was the fork in the road moment of the game. The offense had appeared to wake up, but FSU hadn’t slowed down, so the Tar Heels needed to match scores with the Seminoles to keep the pressure on. Khafre failed to coral a perfectly thrown pass into his hands for a huge gain, possibly a touchdown, and the Tar Heels ultimately had to punt. You could physically feel the air go out of the stadium on that drop, and final result, like Thanos, was inevitable. Brown’s drop was a microcosm of the usual issues Carolina has had getting another receiver besides Downs to step up.
Jay Bateman-It’s time to call out the DC here. How, after three years and miles of evidence, does this team still not know how to handle a mobile quarterback? FSU basically just dialed up the same game plan from last year, with the same quarterback, and had the same success in just carving up the Carolina front. It’s completely possible that the loss of Power Echols early due to a questionable targeting call threw the plan for a loop, but at this point is beyond gross negligence to keep letting quarterbacks that are even remotely mobile chew you up like this. Opposing coaches have clearly found the weakness in Bateman’s scheme and he’s failed to do anything resembling adjustments to try and force a team to be one-dimensional. It’s not a fireable offense, yet, because most of the talent for this UNC defense is young and still learning their way, but now the time has come to start sitting players who aren’t cutting it and letting those young guys play. Something has to change, otherwise the Heels won’t even make a bowl game at this point.
Mack Brown-Beyond the obvious, we’ll start with this: Mack Brown will likely never beat FSU. These last two games were his best chance, by far, and now thanks to the way the ACC (stupidly) adheres to the division format, by the time the Seminoles appear on the Tar Heels’ schedule again, one would think Brown will have retired again. Beyond that, Brown has really seen the Tar Heels come up short in a year that had high expectations. He didn’t help himself with this odd comment in the postgame press conference
“My expectation is to win every game. So three times we’ve met it and three times we haven’t. The national media expectation, the expectations for us to be a top-ten team were wrong. So I guess we should all be critical of the media for picking us too high, because we’re not that good. So you guys all screwed it up.”
The media doesn’t go to practice, doesn’t motivate the players, doesn’t draw up a game plan, and you sure didn’t hear Brown criticize the media when the hype train kept rolling prior to the season start. He soaked it in, which he should have because attention is currency in college football. If he felt the “media” had hyped them up too much, then the time to warn fans were before the season. It’s a regrettable comment, and one that speaks to the frustration that is clearly in the building. Brown also is facing the very real possibility of having to make staff changes, as it’s a lot easier to change the voices going to the players than the players themselves. If Mack Brown 2.0 is going to succeed at Carolina, the pressure is on to show the last couple of years weren’t a fluke.
Sam Howell continues to take a beating, but it at least looks like he’s learning how to give himself up, sliding multiple times instead of getting tackled at the end of his runs. He was once again the leading rusher for the team with 108 yards on the ground. His 17 for 32 and 203-yard day was pretty meek all told, but the real killer was the one interception in the second quarter. Once again a drive that was likely setting up for a score ended, and FSU turned around to convert it. Again, tough to blame him when the offensive line isn’t holding up, no receivers will catch passes, and he has to be the leading rusher, but one does wonder how much his NFL stock is hurting...The thing about the rushing is that the backs are doing their jobs, to an extent, Ty Chandler and D.J. Jones rushed for over 120 themselves, and had a great 4.4 and 5.5 yards per carry, respectively. There was very little use of the backs as receivers, and at this juncture you have to wonder why as they could be a great valve for Howell to check to.
We do this again Saturday, 3:30, against Miami. Can Carolina compete in the second half, or was Saturday a sign of a team that’s been crushed under the weight of expectations. We’ll see who shows up against a rested Hurricanes squad.