With the way this season has gone, I think most fans weren’t expecting a win over Notre Dame, despite Vegas making them just a 3.5 point favorite. The team had failed to show up well in road games, and while it’s not last year’s CFP team, Notre Dame still has playoff aspirations after only suffering one loss to start the year. They’ve done well by just wearing teams out, finding where you’re weakest, and exploiting it. On the other side, Carolina had been predictable on offense, and the defense seemed to be taking steps backward.
In hindsight, while Carolina may not have deserved the win, the offense sure did enough to deserve better than the final result. Instead, the Tar Heels will travel back to Chapel Hill next weekend starting at 4-4, and a whole new set of questions about the future of the team. Let’s break down what was actually good — and there was a lot of good — before we spend the second part focusing on the bad.
Sam Howell:This was the game that fans had been waiting for all season. It’s too late for him to make a case for any sort of awards, but he still had one more chance for a large stage in his Tar Heel career. To say he took advantage of it was an understatement. In a national broadcast on primetime against Notre Dame, the junior threw for 341, ran for 117 before sacks (his net was 101), passed for a TD, ran for a TD, and completed passes to eight different players. His decisions were quick, on point, and despite getting sacked three times, he rarely made mistakes. His lone pick was a factor of miscommunication with Josh Downs and a great read on the pass by DJ Brown. It was easily his best game of the season, and it’s the one that likely sealed his fate as an entrant into the 2022 NFL Draft. Appropriately enough, this game was the one where he became the UNC career leader in yards thrown. If this is the version of Howell we get the rest of the season, the offense at least should be a lot of fun.
Oh yeah, he had a great punt, too!
Let’s just admire his two touchdowns. This pass to Green was beautiful because of the quick fake to Downs, drawing the two defenders before finding the wide open Green.
North Carolina with a fake screen, gets Antoine Green wide open and Sam Howell hits him for the 33 yard TD! pic.twitter.com/tEFezlR5KY— ✯✯✯✯✯ (@FTBVids_YT) October 31, 2021
His rushing TD was a replay of other rushes this year. He's gotten so confident in running the ball that it adds a serious element to his game for anyone that wants to add him to their team.
UNC Receivers: My original thought here was to list Downs, but in a season when we’ve been complaining that no other receiver has decided to help Sam out, let’s go ahead and give a shout out to the entire group of pass catchers. Downs with 10 and 141; Green with 5, 82, and a touchdown; Bryson Nesbit with 3 and 50; Justin Olson with 2 and 25. Them and four others caught passes from Howell, as well as very few drops. Only Downs had the worst drop of consequence, but as the buddy I watch the game with said: “he doesn’t have to apologize for anything this season.” All season it felt like Sam couldn’t trust the other players he had out on the field, but on Saturday we were reminded of how good this offense could be, and it was thanks to the work these pass catchers did. Clearly the offense did some work during the bye week to clear up some issues, and the work shown. Here’s hoping this is not a one-time issue.
Ty Chandler: Fifteen carries for 83 yards, one catch for 18, two touchdowns, and generally looked comfortable as part of the Tar Heels’ offense. Ty has not been Michael Carter or Javonte Williams, nor should he have expected to have been when he only had one season to roll in the offense, but it’s clear that as he’s gotten more reps on the field and in practice he’s found his pace within the offense. His touchdown run was a thing of beauty, and something we’ve seen before. He’s going to be a key for the Tar Heels if they want to get to a bowl game, and his success helps Sam’s success, so here’s hoping last night wasn’t his apex.
Defensive Coaching Staff: Jay Bateman is going to be the primary focus here, but honestly when you have a total systematic failure like Saturday night he shouldn’t be the only one with the spotlight. I’m talking Tommy Thigpen as the LB coach, Tim Cross as the DL coach, and Dre Bly as the Cornerbacks coach. Don’t forget that Bateman is listed as the Co-defensive coordinator with Thigpen, but it’s clear at this point that this crew just hasn’t taken advantage of the talent that they’ve been given. How you can have an off week and put up that putrid of an effort is beyond my comprehension. I’m not even going to post the 91 yard run that broke Carolina’s back because I don’t want you throwing up on a Monday, but that was a failure on all three levels from poor tackling, poor containment, and just poor play. Sadly it was emblematic of the whole effort as Notre Dame ran for 292 yards, passed for 230, and easily put up 44 points. The defense absolutely wasted the best offensive effort of the season by the Tar Heels, and number eleven team or no, it’s just inexcusable. Mack Brown was seen on the sidelines after the 91 yard run writing down on a card, and I’m sure most folks were thinking he said “find new defensive staff.” At the very least, some hard conversations are going to happen after the season.
Scared Money: Early in the third quarter, the Tar Heels had apparently converted a 3rd and 10, but thanks to a timely injury by Notre Dame, the game went into a TV timeout which allowed for replay to call down and review the play. DJ Jones was ruled to have put his knee down just short to create a 4th and inches, and only down 24-20 at the time the Tar Heels decided to punt. It created some heated debate in the THB Slack. I was willing to forgive the call because we all already knew just how poorly the defense was playing so to give the Irish the ball back at the 27 was asking for the game to be over. The counter was, of course, that even that deep in your own territory all you have to do is have Sam push ahead and you’re good to go. Notre Dame went on to get the ball at the 19 and scored like it was no problem. Some will call it the reason Carolina lost, but in the end your offense had scored 20 and they should be able to get a few inches. Who knows how the flow of the game is changed if the offense continues at that point, and the Tar Heels are at a juncture in the season when they need to start taking those chances.
ACC Officials: They weren’t good. At all. You know they aren’t good when the NBC Crew that is literally the Notre Dame Football network is trying to find a way to not directly question a call that was in the favor of the Irish. Let’s make something crystal clear: they were not the reason Carolina lost the game. I’ve detailed before now all of the ways Carolina had to take control, but the officiating was trash, and it’s been an issue in the ACC for too long. Something has to change for the good of the conference.
DJ Jones provided a good 7 for 40 effort backing up Chandler, as he fights to try and make sure he has some playing time for the rest of his UNC career...Grayson Atkins is doing is typical late season improvement as his steady leg made all the PAT’s and two FG’s for the Tar Heels, meanwhile Ben Kiernan did a great job kicking a for a 47 yard average, especially when he was outright tackled that was somehow not roughing.
Next week starts the busiest stretch for big athletics in the fall: basketball has an exhibition on Friday against Elizabeth City State, football is at it against Wake at noon Saturday, basketball plays a game that counts at 9 PM Tuesday against Loyola, football goes to Pitt on Thursday, and basketball plays Brown on Friday.
Hope you got your rest!