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UNC vs. Duke: Three Things Learned

Everything is better when the Heels’ defense plays like they did yesterday afternoon.

NCAA Football: Duke at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

You could say that Duke was fraudulent coming into this game with wins against Kansas, Northwestern, and NC A&T. You could also say that perhaps Duke’s offensive line was a little on the suspect side, and that helped a lot when it came to holding the Blue Devils to seven points. However, the reality is that UNC needed this game. They needed to be able to prove that they could take a step forward, both from a fundamental as well as a more advanced standpoint, and I feel like that is what we saw yesterday afternoon. There is obviously still some concerns, but for the most part I feel like this was an encouraging win and that there are certain players that deserve a lot of praise.

Let’s kick off our three things learned by talking about the player that deserves the most praise: Josh Downs.

Josh Downs: Ultimate Playmaker

Have you ever watched a player do so many great things, that any negative plays they had just seemed like a weird dream you had? That is basically Josh Downs’ performance yesterday in a nutshell: it was definitely not perfect, and yet he was so incredible all at the same time. Downs finished the game with eight catches for 168 yards and a touchdown. This is now the second game this season in which he eclipsed 150 receiving yards, and it’s also the second game in which he had a 50+ yard play.

Naturally we are used to Downs catching bombs from Howell down the field, but that wasn’t even the most impressive part of what he was able to do against the Blue Devils. A lot of what Downs was able to do involved his ability to gain yards after the catch, with the most notable play being his 63-yard touchdown. That touchdown could’ve easily ended as a 10-yard play, but Downs broke away from a defender before beating the rest down the field in a foot race.

What we’re seeing from Downs so far this season is special, and it’s hard To fathom where UNC’s offense would be without him.

The defense has finally taken a step forward

Jay Bateman deserves a round of applause after the defense’s performance against Duke. It’s truly impressive how much better the tackling looked from just about every player on the field, they were able to generate pressure against Gunnar Holmberg, and Mataeo Durant was pretty well contained, despite the fact that he broke free for 114 yards total (that guy has been incredible, so they shouldn’t feel bad for that). The Heels held Duke to 314 total yards, with only 184 of those yards coming from the passing game. After UNC’s offense was held to just nine yards in the third quarter, the Blue Devils were held to -3 yards by the Heels’ defense in the fourth.

Perhaps the biggest accomplishment from the defense in this game was the fact that they were able to generate turnovers. Trey Morrison managed to score off of a fumble recovery that he took to the house, and Cam’Ron Kelly managed to pick off Holmberg early in the third quarter. This is the performance that we had been waiting for from Jay Bateman’s squad, as they were finally able to put together a complete performance in all four quarters. Hopefully they only get better from here, which would help the offense out a lot as they navigate some of their issues.

Sam Howell’s reads vs. Phil Longo’s play calling

Let’s revisit UNC’s nine yards of offense in the third quarter. It is a mystery as to how such a lack of production in the third quarter has been a trend for the Heels this season, but I feel like it has been getting worse and worse. Horrendous offensive line aside — we really don’t need to beat that drum any harder than it’s been beaten — I’m starting to wonder if it is Sam Howell’s reads that are hurting this team more in critical moments, or if Phil Longo’s play calling is the culprit, and the answer is almost certainly that both of these things are true.

Once again, this can’t be said enough: this offensive line is still a train wreck. I can’t tell you how many times Howell didn’t even have enough time to make a half decent read before he was being harassed by Duke’s front seven, who were blitzing the Heels like it was going out of style. However, I couldn’t help but notice that Howell was making some sub-optimal throws when he had decent pockets, and at times he clearly had an open man that would’ve given him less, yet positive yardage. The most egregious play that I can think of is when he threw a ball into triple coverage, which thankfully ended up being an incompletion.

As far as Phil Longo goes, I feel like one of the reasons that Howell is constantly looking for the home run is because a lot of the plays…well…are designed to look for the home run. I ended up watching some old Mitch Trubisky footage for fun this past week, and one thing that I feel like isn’t utilized often with this current team are plays meant to generate quick, easy yardage. I don’t know, obviously Sam Howell has had a lot of success under Longo, and Longo has been able to do a lot of good things with this team. I just wonder sometimes if this marriage is based around the idea of doing things harder than smarter, but when wins are birthed from said marriage, it’s more of a philosophical question than it is me sounding the alarm. Check back in with me after next week’s game against Florida State.