Saturday’s game was a fork in the road moment for just how badly this season would fail to meet expectations. Lose, and you’re 3-4 with a tough five game stretch after the bye and all of a sudden wondering if you’ll even make a bowl game. Win, and you’re 4-3, and only need one more win to qualify for a bowl game, assuming that you’ll beat Wofford on November 20th. The stakes were equally important for Miami. They had their off week to prepare, had a new quarterback, and had every reason to try and save a season that arguably went off the rails more than the Tar Heels.
Two teams that were expected to fight for the Coastal instead were fighting to save their season.
After the 45-42 win on Saturday, Carolina goes into the second half of the season with a bounce while the Hurricanes will need to win four of their last six just to make a postseason appearance. And yet, for how important the game was, it was a display of just why both teams had not been able to live up to expectations. In short, both teams tried to out-dumb each other with penalties, turnovers, and a fitting end that saw an interception on the last drive. A win is a win, though, so let’s look at who’s responsible for it being a win...and who’s responsible for making them look dumb.
Cedric Gray: Have a day, Cedric. The sophomore from Charlotte had six tackles, five of them solo and one for loss, a pass break up and...oh yeah two interceptions. In a season where the turnover belt has been conspicuously absent, Gray saved the Tar Heels season with the final pick of a driving Miami in the fourth quarter.
Credit Jeremiah Gemmel with the break up, his second of the game, for giving Gray the chance to seal the game for Carolina, but Gray did the smart thing and grabbed the ball instead of just knocking it down to put an end to the very real threat of Miami at least tying the game. The defense had some rough moments on Saturday, but the fact that this sophomore is making plays is a reminder that a good chunk of it is still young, and if they use this to build toward something after the bye it could just be where they turn the corner.
Sam Howell & Josh Downs: Let’s just go ahead and put these two in their own spot instead of breaking them apart, because at this point they ARE the offense for Carolina. You wouldn’t think that a pedestrian 17-26 and 154 yard performance would get Sam in this category, especially after one pick six that kept Miami in the game in the first half, but overall Howell put together some tape that NFL scouts should like. He was the second leading rusher with 98 yards, but more importantly had two long touchdowns on the ground where he took huge contact and just kept going. He also has learned how to slide when necessary, an acknowledgement that him getting hurt on the ground doesn’t help, especially when a tackle increases the chance of him fumbling the ball. Ultimately, the offense got 45 points with Sam not having much in the air, he just found ways to score.
Downs, meanwhile, continues to be the only receiver that Howell fully trusts. His 45 yard TD in the first half was his usual brilliant self, and he’s turned into someone that teams have to zero in on in order to stall the Carolina offense. For some reason, Miami didn’t seem to understand this until the second half, as Downs got 10 of his 11 receptions before halftime. The fact that he’s only a sophomore means whoever gets the ball for the Tar Heels next year will have a reliable weapon to acclimate to the position, a huge step for a first year starter.
Ty Chandler: On some level the grad transfer has to be frustrated he’s not getting the ball more. Eighteen carries for 104 yards, two touchdowns, one of which was something he’ll put on the highlight reel for the NFL
His run looked familiar for those of us who remember the Miami game last year, in that he hit the hole, broke through a couple of tackles, and then was gone. It’s easy to be spoiled by what Tar Heel fans had last year, but Chandler has really been doing what he can to fill that void. He’s got 588 yards on 106 carries so far this year, and any back that’ll average 5.5 yards per carry is doing some work. The problem has been his reception numbers, seven for 140 overall and just two for seventeen on Saturday. So is it because they aren’t giving him a chance, he’s failing to get open, or Howell just doesn’t look for him? Either way, catching out of the backfield has been a huge component missing from the offense this season, and hopefully they’ll use the bye week to try and get that worked in more.
Wide Receivers not named Josh Downs: It’s the same old story, and on some level I didn’t want to have to write this out but it’s such a glaring problem that it just has to be said each week until someone else consistently stands up. I mentioned before that Howell only had 154 yards in the air, and Downs had 96 of them. So, for those of us that managed to get through Math 10, that leaves 58 yards to everyone else. Fifty. Eight. Oh, it gets worse, though, because of those 58 yards, 41 of them went to Antoine Green with one catch. At this point it’s just laughable that no other receivers have been able to take advantage of the focus on Josh Downs, and you wonder if they just don’t know how to get open or if Howell just has tunnel vision because he just won’t trust anyone else. You also wonder if we’re too far gone to where that can change this season. You can bet Notre Dame will zero in on Downs, and they know the best way to mess with Sam is pressure, so something will need to be figured out in the time between games.
Phil Longo: What. The. Eff. Was. That? After Carolina went up 45-34 early in the fourth quarter, the offensive coordinator went really conservative in the offense’s final two drives. The first drive, a three and out that ended with a dropped pass by Downs is somewhat excusable in that Downs likely gets the first down if he doesn’t drop it, but it also only chewed up 1:39 off the clock. After Miami easily went down the field and converted the two to get it to 45-42, the next three plays were about as much of a white flag as you can get. Miami had all three timeouts and it looked as if Longo’s only goal was to try and get the Hurricanes to burn all of them, which he succeeded in with three obvious run plays right up the middle. Even the run by Sam was so obvious, my buddy in the stands with me called it the moment he saw everyone spread out. You empty the backfield and you can’t even do a play action to try and give the defense something else to look at, and when it’s clear that you’re just trying to run clock of course Sam is going to run it. Sure enough, a five yard run by Howell happens, and the Hurricanes get the ball back. If not for Cedric Gray you honestly wonder if Carolina wins that game, even if it goes to overtime. Now, Longo and the offense deserves a ton of credit for getting 45 points when you look at the actual numbers, but at the same time, if they can get 45 points like that, then you should trust them to get at least one more first down to end the game for a defense that was clearly gassed.
Discipline: Penalties continue to be a story with this team, and they are such momentum killers. The latest chapter on Saturday saw ten penalties for 102 yards. It felt like half of them came on the first scoring drive, where Carolina gave Miami forty yards with two personal fouls. It kept the ball out of the offense’s hands, like Miami get on the board, and ultimately kept the Tar Heels from putting their foot on the throat of the Hurricanes. Last weekend penalties cost them and they came really close to doing it two weeks in a row. This is a stat that has to get cleaned up for the Heels have any success after the bye.
It turns out the 48 yarder by Grayson Atkins going into halftime was the game winner. It was a bit of redemption for Atkins as his 52 yard miss came after Miami had come back to within 28-17, and the Hurricanes had a chance to get even closer before the half with receiving the ball. Instead, Cam’Ron Kelly grabbed an interception, and Atkins turned the negative into a positive. Atkins has also become reliable for PAT’s, hitting all six, so it’s clear at this point he just has a range you can use him for...DJ Jones tried again to be the backup running back for an ailing Caleb Hood but could only scratch 27 yards, and hurting the one-two punch the offense had last year...For those wondering why Jay Bateman still centers the line around Jeremiah Gemmel, you need to look as his stats: nine total tackles, one for loss, two pass break ups (including the game sealing one), and three quarterback hurries. Anyone who watches the games, though, knows that Gemmel isn’t the same without Chazz Surratt with him, and you can’t help but to think if it’s time to shuffle up the defensive front to take some pressure of Gemmel and let the young guys shine.
After seven straight weeks of football, and four of five of them happening in Kenan Stadium it’s time for everyone to take a break. The Tar Heels are now off until October 30th against Notre Dame, and with basketball not starting until November, here’s hoping you plan to enjoy an open fall weekend. I know I will. As will my liver.