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Tar Heel Hangover: Mixed emotions

The joy of the new season offset by the agony of defeat.

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Virginia Tech Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the Tar Heel Hangover. This is our opportunity to review last week’s game, second-guess all of the key moments, and set the game plan for the week ahead.

The Elevator Speech: What has happened over the last week.

First and foremost, college football is back! For a night or two, fans were able to set aside pandemic fears and actually attend sporting events. I traveled to Blacksburg for the game and the atmosphere was incredible. It felt like two years of frustration were unleashed. It may be the most excited I have been to attend a live game ever.

Unfortunately, that excitement from the stands was levied against Carolina. I was concerned entering the game that the crowd could play a factor given that all of last year was played in front of sparse gatherings. The longer the Hokies held the lead, the more the crowd contributed.

Water Cooler Discussion: A lack of momentum.

From the preseason analysis, this looked to be a game that Carolina could dominate on both sides of the line. Instead, largely the opposite was true. The Virginia Tech offense was much more dominant in the first half than the score showed. The game opened with a five-minute drive for a touchdown. A short Carolina possession and punt led to a nearly eight-minute Hokie drive that was undone with a fumble. The third Virginia Tech possession was over seven minutes and a touchdown. Virginia Tech dominated these three drives with 20 minutes of possession. The game plan to keep Sam Howell off the field was obvious.

The good news for the Heels is that even without controlling the line or the time of possession, the score remained close. In fact, the key play of the game came with just under 13 minutes left in the first half. After a sluggish start on the opening drive, the Carolina offense had come to life following Keyshawn King’s fumble. Four first downs and a running game that was starting to show life provided offensive momentum. After a six-yard Ty Chandler run, Carolina had a first down at the Virginia Tech 29. On that run, Marcus McKethan was rolled up in the pile and took an awkward hit to his knee. The Carolina offense was ready for the no huddle, but McKethan only made it a few steps before going down and requiring assistance.

That stopped the clock and ultimately the Carolina drive. The Hokie defense collected themselves during the stoppage. Two sacks in the next three plays forced a Tar Heel punt. Tech subsequently drove the length of the field for a touchdown. McKethan only missed one play. Had he been able to get off the field, the offense would have kept rolling and the outcome could have been very different. That was the opportunity to put game pressure on the Hokies and take the fans out of contest.

A Quick Look Ahead Final Thought

Georgia State offers Carolina the chance to take a breath. The offense needs to get some points on the board and the defense needs to make some plays behind the line of scrimmage. Virginia Tech only scored three points in the second half, but that was as much due to the ultra conservative play calling of the Hokie offense as the strong play of the Carolina defense. Giving up six sacks and three turnovers doomed the Heels, especially when Carolina could only muster four tackles for loss including just one sack.

Needless to say, something needs to change from an offensive play calling standpoint. Virginia Tech is good, but they do not have a national powerhouse defense. A lot of weapons from last year are gone for the Heels and everyone needs to step up.

Final Thought

This was a tough pill to swallow. Any outside chance of a playoff appearance was likely dashed in Blacksburg. Sam Howell’s Heisman hopes also took a huge hit. It was a not so subtle reminder that the team still has a long way to go, but the potential is clearly there.

Go Heels!