Now that any chance of winning the Coastal is out the window, at least we can talk about it.
Shrewd fans knew that while things were going to have to break right in order for the Tar Heels to win the Coastal, it was still on the table as of Thursday Night when they kicked off against Pitt. Amazingly, even though they were in fourth place, with a win the Tar Heels would have a win against every single team ahead of them in the division, and with each of them taking one more loss-which Miami obliged by winning against FSU-the Tar Heels could have snuck their way into Charlotte.
Now that’s done, as Pitt put a hammer lock on the division with the win. That, combined with Wake’s win against NC State on Saturday, has us staring down a vaunted Wake Forest/Pittsburgh matchup for the ACC Championship. Be still our beating heart.
(I know, I know, Wake and Pitt fans, it’s an amazing accomplishment for both of you and you should be excited...but I would hope you’re self-aware enough to know that the rest of the league and country aren’t as excited as you are.)
Carolina is now solidly in the portion of the season where the only thing they have to play for is helping their potential draftees get into the NFL, spoil someone else’s good season, and try to get into the best bowl possible to get those extra practices for those draftees to sit out and see what the Tar Heels have to look forward to in 2022. With that in mind, let’s look at who won, lost, and deserves mention on a stinging loss in Pittsburgh.
Antoine Green-The Tar Heels finally have a second receiver, and it’s the senior Green who’s starting to show out at just the right time. For the third week in a row, Green caught over 80 yards worth of passes, and the 108-yard effort was his biggest of the three. Most of those yards came with this amazing touchdown catch that was Carolina’s only points of the first half, but he also cashed in for another score. On a night where 30 NFL scouts were in the stands to look at the two quarterbacks, Green made a name for himself at the best possible time. He’s likely to play in a bowl game, following the Dez Lawrence route from last season of trying to get as much attention as possible, it’s just a shame it took until now for him to come into his own.
Jay Bateman-We’ve called out Bateman over and over again this season as the Tar Heels have surrendered a ton of points and it looked like that defense had regressed. After a tough game against Wake, there wasn’t much hope that the Tar Heel defense could slow down a potent Pitt attack. But that side of the ball built on their strong fourth quarter against Wake and come out strong versus the Panthers. It’s easy to look at the 23-7 halftime score and be frustrated with the defense again, but that doesn’t account for the fact that the first 14 points came on drives of 20 and 48 yards.
Offensive ineptitude wasted a stand by the defense on the first drive of the game, and continued ineptitude set Pitt up with good field position again. The only drive you could fault them for was the four-play, 77-yard drive after Carolina finally got on the board, but with them being on the field so much those drives are going to happen. After that, though, Pitt did not score again until OT when they got the ball at the 25. That is remarkable, and deserves credit for managing to sack Kenny Pickett four times, pick him off once, and keep him to only 22 net yards (not counting the sacks) on the ground. This weekend will give the defense a chance to continue to build, and then leave it all on the ground for the finale against State. It may be too little too late, but it looks as if the fourth quarter against Wake may not have been a fluke.
Sam Howell-Yes, he was part of the offensive ineptitude in the first half, but with Pittsburgh facing little resistance from the offensive line, he didn’t have much opportunity to really take control until the second half. Of the last three games, this one was his worst for sure, but he still finished 22/33 for 296 yards, two touchdowns in the air, and one on the ground. More importantly, with the eyes of scouts on him and a chance to reverse the narrative that he had slipped, he led his team all the way back from a 23-7 deficit in a tough game-exemplified by his torn jersey-and he can’t be blamed for how bad the OT drive was because of the weather conditions. It says something to scouts when you don’t give up, tough through a difficult night, and still lead your team back to tie it, all on short rest. He should have a short day in his last contest in Kenan next weekend, and then his last game will likely be the rivalry game against NC State on Black Friday, one where he can further drive the nail into their heart by leaving UNC undefeated against the Wolfpack.
Stacy Searels-If it wasn’t obvious by now that the offensive line has issues, then that was completely settled on Thursday night. Five sacks given up, Ty Chandler held to just a net rushing total of 42 yards, and the biggest reason why the defense kept having to put up with a short field at the start of the game. Carolina has given up 39 sacks on the year, and that is just way too many for a squad that was expected to be the strength of the team. During the post-mortem of the season, look for this position to be the top of the list for changes in terms of improvement.
Made Money-As in “scared money don’t make money.” The field goal at the end of the game instead of going for it on fourth down is yet another instance where going conservative just bit Carolina in the end. If you think I’m being too harsh, Mack said it himself that he should have gone for it on that fourth down and was “talked out of it.” He’s the head coach, Carolina was 5-4, rain was already starting to fall, the defense had down yeoman’s work keeping the Tar Heels into the game, and a failed attempt would have given Pitt the ball at their two with Carolina having two timeouts. They couldn’t just take a knee, and arguably it would have been easier for the defense to try and just go all out to stop Pitt instead of playing a safe zone to force them to waste time. In the end, the defense forced overtime, but the team needed to have the same “YOLO” attitude about this game that they did against Clemson in 2019. Don’t expect Mack to play it the same way if the game in Raleigh comes down to a similar situation.
Senior Day-Every game in Chapel Hill has been a sell out this season, but it’s unlikely to happen this week as several tickets still remain for the home finale. There’s nothing really at stake in the contest, it’s at Noon-a necessary time slot because of the basketball team playing in Connecticut at 4:00-which always has a tougher time drawing a crowd, and you’re either going to see a blowout with the starters for about a half, or an unnecessarily close game that’ll be stressful and give you no hope for the next week against State. It’s a shame because it’ll be the last time fans will have to see Howell in Kenan Stadium, as well as a big group of seniors who came to Carolina when things were at their lowest. Hopefully students at least fill up their portion as it’s their last football game, and they’ve brought it all season.
Josh Downs may not be the leading receiver for the second week in a row, but he also showed something for the scouts with an eight-catch, 95-yard effort, and that included a 48 yard catch. He now has over 1100 yards with two games left, but if all goes well next week he won’t be on the field for long...Jeremiah Gemmel arguably had his best game of the season, leading the team with ten tackles, eight of them solo, and had the lone pickoff of Pickett. He also got a sack on the Pitt QB, so hopefully a few of the scouts in the press box saw him and thought “maybe there’s something there”...it’s so good seeing Storm Duck out on the field again, and his four solo tackles gave the secondary so much more room to work in pressuring Pitt...hat tip for the second week in a row to Grayson Atkins, while he didn’t have to kick for distance, Heinz Field is a notoriously difficult place for kickers and he was 2-2 in PATs and did kick that pressure-packed game tying field goal when the rain started coming down.
The Tar Heels wrap up the home part of their 2021 schedule against Wofford next week at Noon, where hopefully they’ll become bowl eligible. Then the real fun begins.