Fortunately, after UNC’s football team came up short on Thursday night, the next three days provided some relief for North Carolina sports fans. UNC men’s basketball pulled out a win against Brown that felt an awful lot like the kind of game that the Heels would have lost in the past couple of years, then the Hurricanes continued their hot start with a win against the Blues, and then the Panthers and Hornets went back-to-back in defeating one-loss teams in the triumphant return of Cameron Jerrell Newton. Oh, and UNC’s women’s team also absolutely crushed Charlotte, putting on a clinic at both ends of the floor. I’ll get to this elsewhere, later, but Alyssa Utsby is a baller. All that doesn’t mean we get to ignore Tar Heel football, though, as we come up on the end of college football’s regular season. So, here are some belated, and hopefully quick, positional grades for UNC’s overtime loss in Pittsburgh.
In some ways, Sam Howell had one of his best games of the season on Thursday night, with nearly every NFL team in attendance in the press box. He looked more comfortable as a passer than he had for most of this year, going 22/33 for 296 yards, 2 touchdowns, and an interception on the last play of the game after it had already been blown up. He scored yet another rushing touchdown and broke a few key runs for good yardage in the second half as the Heels mounted their comeback. The comeback itself deserves mention, too: Howell’s had a special clutch gene since he stepped on campus, and he led his team from down 3 scores to tie the game up for the second straight week. But there was also a lot of bad in Howell’s play, much of it on the mental/processing side of things. Howell was probably as responsible for as many of the at least 5 (the box score notes 5, but there were that many in the first half and I remember at least 2 in the second) sacks he took as his offensive line was, he made the wrong read on read-options and RPOs numerous times, including not making the pitch on a speed option that would have converted a crucial 4th-and-1, and ruined several plays either by dropping his eyes too soon or forcing something to his first read instead of moving off it — the failed 2-point conversion in the 3rd quarter was an example of the former and the failed 4th down conversion, where he threw a ball up for grabs to a blanketed Justin Olson, was the latter. All of those mistakes ended up either losing points or killing drives, and if Howell’s mental game and processing been even remotely up to standard, UNC probably wins going away, even as much as he carried them through the eventual comeback to force overtime.
Running Backs: C+
A week after Ty Chandler exploded against Notre Dame, he came back down to Earth against Pittsburgh, with a couple of impressive runs but more often than not getting stopped by the front line for minimal gains. He netted just 42 yards on 14 carries. D.J. Jones carried 7 times as a change of pace and had one nifty run for 11 yards, but only 7 yards on his other 6 carries as he got tripped up around the line of scrimmage most of the time. Chandler’s straight-line speed makes him the better back for UNC right now, thanks to an offensive line that can’t sustain holes very well, but I do continue to be more impressed with Jones’ ability to make the right read on UNC’s staple split-zone run — he’ll be very good next year if the offensive line gets remotely right. The most impressive thing this group did, though, was Chandler’s leaping one-handed grab of a Sam Howell moonball on 3rd and goal in the 4th quarter that necessitated Pittsburgh burning a timeout and ultimately not being able to get in scoring range on their last drive. I’m not sure we’ve ever seen a Tar Heel running back make a catch like that, even Gio Bernard or Michael Carter.
Josh Downs continues to do Josh Downs things, but a little more quietly as he’s received more attention in the latter half of the year. He had another 8-catch game and netted 95 yards, maintaining his pace as a top-5 receiver in the nation in terms of catches and receiving yards. Making things easier on him in recent weeks has been Antoine Green, who has stepped up as a big-play threat across from him after struggling earlier in the season with his hands and deep separation. Green opened the scoring proceedings for UNC by breaking down a Pitt cornerback with his release, getting him to slip, and then walking into the end zone after Howell saw him all alone on the sideline for a 76-yard score. He added another touchdown later in the day with a defender draped all over him and just managed to complete the catch before the ball was ripped away from him, and finished with 3 catches for 108 yards and the two scores. Other than that, there wasn’t much of note. Justin Olson’s feature time in the offense continues to baffle me, as he’s rarely made a positive play when targeted and almost had the ball ripped away from him for another interception on Thursday. Kamari Morales dropped a touchdown, a rare sight for him, but it was fortunately followed by Green’s second score so we don’t have to agonize about it. And Garrett Walston, who’s had his snaps reduced recently to account for Morales’ emergence, bounced back a little with three chain-moving catches for 28 yards.
Offensive Line: D-
Hoo boy. (I’m tempted to leave it there, but I’ll be better than that. I guess.) In a first half where the offense couldn’t get anything going, it was because every single drive of the first half included a sack of Howell, putting the Heels behind the chains against the conference’s #2 defense. I mentioned above that Howell was at fault for at least two of them, but a) that leaves about 3 drive-killers that were all on the line, and b) a decent line compensates for its quarterback’s erratic movement — just look at Pittsburgh’s, and how often they blocked UNC defensive line players after they’d been beaten to recreate a pocket or create a running lane for Kenny Pickett. The UNC staff continued shuffling Joshua Ezeudu between left tackle and left guard as they have for much of this season, rightfully scared of Asim Richards’ ability to hold up through a whole game. This time, they also replaced Jordan Tucker early-ish on in the game with William Barnes, who’s been solid in backup work across the line this season, but not much changed in the first half. Pass protection held up better in the second half with some tweaks to the offensive scheme and Howell’s re-introduction as a scrambler, but, when it counted, the line still let the Heels down, with penalties on and-goal situations putting UNC out of punch-it-in range and immediate breakdowns in protection on 3rd and 4th downs in overtime.
Defensive Line: B
Credit where it’s due: the book on Heisman dark horse Kenny Pickett was that you have to get him off his spot and under a little duress to avoid him dicing up your secondary, and the UNC defensive line came prepared. Des Evans, playing with at the line of scrimmage more, terrorized Pitt offensive tackles and pushed them into the pocket with frequency even though he didn’t record a sack (he did post two official hurries). Pickett was sacked 4 times, and even though most of that was by linebackers, it was the line that usually got him uncomfortable before a linebacker finished the job. They suffered comparatively in the run game, as lead back Israel Abanikanda took 12 carries for 63 yards, but did enough on the rest of the Pitt run game, as well as the 4 sacks, to put an offense that’s been rolling through the rest of the ACC into beatable territory.
Jeremiah Gemmel looked his junior year self again, flying around the field and leading the team in tackles with 10 (8 solo) and a key interception. On a day where the defense as a whole looked much more in sync than it had for most of the season, it seemed that Gemmel was burdened less with making sure everybody was in position and was able to focus on his own play for once, and it paid off dividends. Cedric Gray played ably in support, with 8 tackles of his own (4 solo). Each of the pair also recorded a sack and a pass breakup, closing off the middle of the field much more than we’ve been accustomed to. Tomon Fox and Kaimon Rucker on the outside combined for a sack and a half, and in typical feast-or-famine fashion for them, did little else throughout the game (Fox much more than Rucker, to be fair). I’m a little surprised that Power Echols didn’t find his way on to the field; I think his redshirt’s already gone and he could have added some juice in backup duty. Eugene Asante did get some backup snaps and was pretty nondescript; he’s not busting plays open, but it’s been at the expense of his ability to blow up plays with his acceleration and straight-line speed, so he didn’t really make anything happen, either.
Here’s a sentence that would have been unfathomable a week ago: Kenny Pickett had probably his worst game of the season against UNC. While some of the credit goes to the defensive line for keeping him off balance, Pickett’s still been pretty good under pressure this season. And while he made a few impressive plays, UNC’s secondary covered up his receivers well enough that he couldn’t find space against them. Pickett completed 25 of his 43 passes, a season-low completion percentage, for 346 yards and three touchdowns and Gemmel’s interception, which is a reasonably impressive line but pales in comparison to what he’d been doing for most of the year. The interception was only his 4th of the year, for starters. Having Storm Duck back in the lineup has really stabilized the secondary; even though he drew a couple of holding/interference calls, he was usually sticking to his man just as Tony Grimes was to his outside of an early 42-yard bomb. Here’s a stat: Jordan Addison is Pitt’s leading receiver, averaging 17-plus yards per catch, and was held to 6 catches on 11 targets for 84 yards. Their second-leading receiver caught 3 of 8 targets. That’s making receivers uncomfortable. Cam Kelly continues a pretty solid season at safety, and Ja’Qurious Conley made some big plays at nickel but disappeared for stretches as well.
Special Teams: B-
Things started poorly for this group, but it wasn’t all their fault, as the offense forced them into punt-snapping from the shadow of the goal-line. A hurried punt led to a good return and Pittsburgh got to start a drive from the red zone, which they converted into a score. The next drive, though, gave them a little more room to work with and the result was the same: a flat punt by Ben Kiernan, room to run for Jordan Addison, a drive starting in UNC territory, touchdown. Kiernan’s been good this year, but those two punts gave way too much to the opposition. From there, special teams settled in and had a pretty solid game. Kiernan’s next 4 punts were either returned for no gain or fair caught, Grayson Atkins made a chip-shot field goal to tie the game, nothing notable happened on kickoffs on either end, and Jahlil Taylor blocked a Pittsburgh field goal attempt before halftime.
This is the second time recently I’ve given the coaching a bad grade and yet had little problem with the offensive or defensive gameplans. Sam Howell’s poor mental game made Phil Longo’s game look a lot worse than it was, and Jay Bateman finally got his defense to execute the basic stuff that he’s running. But concerns about the overall direction of this team remain, in areas like personnel deployment, clock management, crunch-time execution and decision-making, and, most prominently, penalties. I’ll start with the last one first: UNC has just been an awfully disciplined team this year and it’s been even worse as the season goes on. Against the Panthers, they drew 12 penalties for 105 yards, which I think was the third straight game of over 100 penalty yards for UNC opponents. Well-coached teams simply don’t do this, and it looks like a problem that hasn’t even been attempted to be fixed.
As far as personnel deployment, I mentioned earlier my bemusement that Justin Olson has as much trust from his coaching staff as he does when somebody like J.J. Jones has made plays in limited opportunities and got one snap, where Howell misfired a slant to him, before riding the bench for the rest of the game. Power Echols and RaRa Dillworth can make plays as off-ball linebackers right now, but neither seems to have played outside special teams. Trey Morrison’s move to safety is probably too far gone to take back now, but it’s more than clear he doesn’t really belong there and his backups have outperformed him to no avail. And the offensive line shuffling is anathema to the reasons we’d been told the line would be good in the first place, which is to say, continuity and chemistry. Pulling linemen around willy-nilly robs them of the opportunity to get better as a group — if you don’t think Asim Richards can hold up at left tackle, then move Ezeudu permanently and let Ed Montilus or Barnes pick up at left guard, instead of half-heartedly continuing to give him chances he flubs.
I was actually fine with both the 2-point conversion call in the third quarter to try and cut the lead down to two possessions and the decision to kick a tying field goal rather than go for a touchdown on 4th-and-3 with a line that just had not been getting push in condensed situations, so I’m not going to litigate those here. What I do have a problem with is Mack Brown’s admission that he wanted to go for the latter and then let an advisor talk him out of it. There are two schools of thought on decision-making: one that holds that the calculator should do it all for you, and one that holds that the calculator exists to validate a head coach’s intuition. I honestly think they’re both equally valid. What I don’t think is valid is a head coach letting his intuition be overtaken not by analytics, but by somebody else. That’s weak buck-passing at best and self-sabotage at worst — Mack Brown’s got to own these crunch-time moments and trust that he knows enough about football to make a call. Getting talked out of it is indicative of a team that, from the top down, just isn’t decisive enough to be good. I hope things can change going forward — starting with the evaluation of supposed game-situation expert Sparky Woods’ role on the staff.