Man, that game was a roller coaster. It was so wild, let’s not even waste time with superfluous words about what that game meant. We all know what it meant, it’s just time to dive right into the good and bad...and sometimes both...that Saturday’s game showed:
Ty Chandler: He was our player of the game for a reason. Chandler has lived up to his promise since announcing his grad transfer last year, it’s just been lost in the fact that the team lost both Michael Carter and Javonte Williams. No one person was going to match that production, and with Chandler coming into a new offense and having a slightly different style, it’s pretty clear that it was going to take time for him to show his full ability. We’ve seen hints, but on Saturday he exploded. 22 rushes, 213 yards, FOUR touchdowns, as well as one reception for 30 yards. The grad transfer already has 884 yards on the ground and 188 catching, with 14 total touchdowns. He’s also put up two of his best efforts when the spotlight as the brightest: against Notre Dame on NBC and against ninth ranked Wake on ABC. If his goal was to turn some heads and help his NFL stock, even with three games left it’s mission accomplished.
Sam Howell: Talk about helping his NFL case. The same week that ESPN’s David Hale pointed out just how good Howell’s season had actually been despite perception, Howell backed up the hype with an efficient 16/26 216 in the air and, more importantly, 12/104 on the ground. He accounted for three touchdowns-two on the ground and one in the air-didn’t turn the ball over once, and led the offense calmly to come back from a double-digit deficit two years in a row. He once again spread the targets around, as Antoine Green was his leading receiver and five other players were recipients of the pass from the junior. He still managed to find Josh Downs, but two other players had more yards than the superstar receiver, and it’s become clear last weekend against Notre Dame was no fluke. The only concern left is that Howell still seems to not be able to connect on long passes like last year, but one wonders if the punishment he’s taking running the ball is affecting that. The combine is going to help alleviate that.
Speaking of runs, enjoy this work from our own Jake Lawrence to capture the essence of the powerful runs by both Chandler and Howell:
Second, here is Sam evading the entire Demon Deacon defense. pic.twitter.com/lRMJO71HnO— Jake Lawrence (@TheRealestRJL) November 6, 2021
Fourth, Ty doing more Ty things. He's found an extra gear the past few weeks. pic.twitter.com/Y67pF4oehf— Jake Lawrence (@TheRealestRJL) November 6, 2021
Finally, Chandler proving that you don't really have to break tackles if the opponent can't catch you. pic.twitter.com/xlLts1xVKt— Jake Lawrence (@TheRealestRJL) November 6, 2021
Phil Longo: Nobody is perfect. I have gripes with Longo’s play calling at times in that he can be stubborn, have the wrong personnel, and too quick to raise the white flag on a series when taking a risk will provide a bigger benefit. These are quibbles, though, because the thing you can’t ignore is in the three games since the Florida State loss, the offense has done its job with little support. 45 points against Miami, 34 points against Notre Dame, and 58 against Wake. He also correctly read that the best way to fight Wake was to run, run, and run some more, wearing out their defense before unleashing some passes. Two games in a row have also seen a good spread of pass targets, and overall it’s clear that the team has found it’s groove on that side of the ball. So, tip your hat to Longo. It’s just a shame that with all that point production the Tar Heels are just 2-1 in that stretch.
Defense: Let’s just call a spade a spade here. The Tar Heels shouldn't have had to score 58 points to win that game, and in those games where the offense has scored 45, 25, and 58 points, the defense has surrendered 42, 44, and 55 points. The offense has to play nearly perfect for the Tar Heels to have a chance at this point, because you’re just praying that the defense can make a stop. Any stop. Yet, when it mattered and the Tar Heels were down 17 on Saturday, the defense did, in fact, make stops. Maybe this duality is best pictured by Cam’Ron Kelly. On multiple plays that went for scores, you can see the back getting roasted on coverage, and yet he also had two huge picks for the Tar Heels, the second of which lead to a quick touchdown that brought the Tar Heels within seven. The defense wouldn’t let the Deacs score again until the Tar Heels were up by 10, and by then it was pretty much over. Was some of this due to the fact that the Heels were without Jeremiah Gemmel for much of the game? Possibly, but there’s a mountain of evidence of how the team played with him that says there is just something fundamentally wrong with that side of the ball right now. Maybe Saturday will provide the spark they need to turn it around, and they arguably won’t face a more difficult offense all year, but if this team wants to be more than a 6-6 squad, they need to do more.
Josh Downs: Tongue firmly planted in cheek here. Only four catches for 35 yards, and the subject to a lot of the focus of the Deacon defense, you had hoped that he would also get a chance to show off his stuff two weeks in a row, but in all honesty the fact that he only had the third-highest yardage of the receivers is a positive development, and maybe it finally means teams will have to take chances on other pass catches which will open up the field for him more.
Targeting: I don’t want to go on another officiating rant because at some point it’s beating a dead horse and seen as whining. The problems with officiating in the ACC as a whole are well known by now, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t vent about why the Tar Heels were without Gemmel for much of the game. Coming out of a TV timeout, fans at home were shocked to learn that he had been ejected for targeting. The heinous crime? This-
The thing is, as much as I want to argue about the officiating here I can’t because, by the letter of the rules this was the right call. On a slowed down replay, you see Gemmel lead with his helmet and hit the helmet of Sam Hartman. That’s the problem, isn’t it? This rule was originally introduced to try and get malicious headshots out of the game, as well as protect players from themselves by leading with their head. At this point, we’ve done that, and now we’ve reached a level of ridiculousness. What on Earth is Gemmel supposed to do here? He’s going low so that he doesn’t get flagged, Hartman is going down and the way he goes down leads with his head first, how on earth is Gemmel even supposed to avoid the contact? He’s doing what a proper defender is supposed to do, make a play without intent to injure. This replay is a prime example as to why they just need to get rid of targeting all together. If someone hits another player with malicious intent, give them the unnecessary roughness penalty and toss them, otherwise if the head contact happens in the course of a normal football play-LIKE IT DOES IN THE NFL-you let it go. This rule has been in the game long enough to where players now know how to protect themselves as best they can, and the only way to eliminate this type of egregious call that happened on Gemmel is to just get rid of that penalty all together.
Rushing the Field Takes: It’s like clockwork, man. The moment a team rushes the field Twitter explodes assuming you have to either be all for it or all against it. I attempted to mention some shade of gray and, predictably, had to tweet about ten more times to try and further clarify. It goes like this: On the surface, it’s ridiculous that UNC fans would rush the field for beating Wake. Had the season gone more like we expected, and that game brought us to 7-2 instead of 5-4, I doubt it happens. Where the Tar Heels should be as a program is such that you don’t rush the field for a win against Wake Forest.
HOWEVER, this isn’t a normal game against Wake. The Tar Heels were 4-4, and the Deacs were the 9th ranked team in the country. A top ten win is a top ten win, something that’s been really rare in Chapel Hill, it was also an 18-point comeback, a ridiculously entertaining game-likely the best game of the year-and after the past 18 months that fans and students have suffered with COVID, to be able to cap off the best game of the year by rushing the field and everyone just sharing in a little joy is absolutely understandable. More importantly, a fan base and student section that’s been much derided for using football as a stopover for basketball showed just how much a football win meant to them. In short, it’s possible to have multiple emotions about this, and it’s honestly tiring to have to have an either/or take about an event that has a lot of factors that go into it.
Power Echols gave us a preview of his talent thanks to the Gemmel ejections, and while he has a lot to work on, the seven tackles showed promise for the freshman pressed into duty. While you hate that Gemmel was taken out, the experience for Echols was valuable and should help springboard him after Gemmel’s departure...Storm Duck brought back the best name in college football and made an impact, despite the bad day on defense. He provides much needed depth in the secondary, and as he got his, um, duck legs under him, he seemed to improve as the game went on. He’ll be an important addition to a Tar Heel team looking to build momentum for next season...In a game where “field goals aren’t enough,” a tip of the hat to Grayson Atkins. The kicker was three for three for his kicks, and did, in fact, provide the difference in the game, and he was also perfect for his seven PAT’s, including one that was ten yards further back due to a ridiculous holding call on a two point try. He’s rounded into his late season form, and the Tar Heels would not have won that game without him...Ja’Qurious Conley had to have spent a lot of time in the hot tub after the game, as he tried three kick off returns for little success but trying to provide some sort of spark after Wake scores, and was still all over the defensive backfield to get five tackles. Conley seemed to come up hurt a couple of times, but he kept playing. Winning cures a lot of pain, so just wanted to make sure what he did was acknowledged here.
No rest for the weary, as the Tar Heels have to pack everything up and head to the Steel City for a game Thursday night against the ACC leaders Pitt. Don’t look now, but the Tar Heels still...mathematically...have a shot at the Coastal, as they have wins against UVA and Miami, and the win against Pitt would create an interesting logjam where they would still be fourth but have a win against all the teams above them. It’s still next to zero shot they'll end up in Charlotte, but a loss on Thursday will eliminate any shot. We’ll see if the Tar Heels can continue to build toward a respectable end to 2021.