Look, we’re going to get to the actual players on the field in a second, but let’s just take a moment to say how good it felt to walk into Kenan Stadium Saturday night. The feeling of getting into the stadium after an afternoon of tailgating, wondering around Tar Heel Town, watching the drum line of the Marching Tar Heels perform in the Pit, seeing the whole group play on the steps of Wilson, the pageantry of pregame, the school songs, and fireworks of the entrance as the team ran onto the field with a crowd in the stands. It was Game Day in Chapel Hill, and it was a feeling that was sorely missed. For that we are all winners.
The Tar Heels put on a good show for the fans that came Saturday night. Up 14-3 by the end of the first quarter, it was clear that this was a game that wouldn’t catch UNC by surprise, unlike some other teams (hello, Florida State). The 59-17 final was satisfying in a lot of ways, but in a lot of ways it wasn’t until the third quarter was over that fans could feel confident in how the team looked. Some issues clearly hadn’t gotten fixed from last week, and fans are right to be concerned going into the showdown with Virginia next weekend.
Let’s take a look at what shone, what stunk, and who deserves a shout out from the win against Georgia State
Sam Howell: Saturday wasn’t a game that’ll leap Howell back in front of Heisman contention, but it was a great bounce back after the disappointment in Blacksburg. The line is what’d you’d expect for this type of opponent: 21/29, 352 yards, three touchdowns in the air, and no interceptions. He was also the leading rusher with 104 yards and two touchdowns, which is another element on tape teams have to be ready for. Calling Howell a dual threat is a stretch, but with the loss of Carter and Williams in the backfield it’s clear that Phil Longo has realized that he’s going to have to utilize Howell’s running abilities more. Howell also pointedly worked to get different receivers the ball Saturday, as last week’s leader Josh Downs only had the third most yards this week. It was a good reset for Sam, hopefully he’ll be able to continue the momentum against the Cavs next weekend.
Receiving Corps: The talent that jogs out onto the field with Sam became apparent Saturday night, as Howell spread the field like he has in seasons’ past. Last week only Josh Downs stood out, but this week you have highlights from multiple players — ones where they made the effort to not only get open, but get their hands on the passes that Howell placed perfectly past the defenders. This catch from Antoine Green is something that was missing last week, both in the effort to get open and to reel in the catch.
Plays like that will help establish trust from Howell, and pay dividends through the rest of the season.
Jacolby Criswell: The desired result may have come a little later than fans wanted, but the newly minted backup was able to come into the game early in the fourth quarter, and instead of just a basic “run out the clock” drive, the sophomore was trusted to run a real drive against an opposing defense. He showed a little bit of why his arrival on campus was a big deal with his first touchdown pass as a Tar Heel (click to the 25:09 mark).
It was a good drive to see. You never know if something will happen to Howell for a play or two...or several (trust me, I’m knocking on every available piece of wood I can right now), and giving Criswell that confidence is huge.
Running Game: Let’s go ahead and lump everyone from the running backs and offensive line here. It’s awesome that Sam Howell could run for over 100 net yards. He also shouldn’t have been the team’s leading rusher. Georgia State gave up 258 yards on the ground to Army last week, and while they are a run-heavy offense, there’s no reason that you should expect the Tar Heels to have their running backs put a total of 96 yards on the board. You read that right: against Georgia State the Tar Heel running backs put up a net of 96 yards on the ground. Even for a new running back corps, that is just totally unacceptable for a supposed experienced offensive line. We’re only two games into a twelve game season, so there’s plenty of room to grow, but fans are right to feel panicky right now. What’s clear is that Phil Longo and Sam Howell are going to have to figure out ways to take advantage of defensive fronts that want to stifle their run game, be it putting backs out in the slot more, using the option to throw timing off..something. The team is not going to achieve what they want with this putrid of an attack.
Running Defense: 181 yards on the ground and both of their touchdowns scored via the rush, it’s not exactly what you want to see against an inferior opponent. It’s not that they were bad, per se, as no runner for the Panthers was anywhere close to 100 yards, but the fact that they were able to have several drives continue because of positive gains on the ground is concerning, and something that’ll need to be buttoned up as the meat of the ACC schedule looms. Darren Grainger led the Panthers with 56 yards and a ridiculous 11.2 average. The push up front also only got through for one sack, by Myles Murphy for six yards. The Panthers laid out a blueprint for opponents to attack Carolina, one that may not be a secret but was effective, and it’ll be interesting to see if Virginia tries to test it versus the secondary next week.
Grayson Atkins: You would have hoped that last season’s “start slow and finish strong” motif wouldn’t have repeated itself, but it appears Atkins still isn’t someone you can fully count on early in the season. The Tar Heels had a decent drive coming out of the locker room, but he missed a short 34-yard attempt that likely kept the first string offense on the field longer than they needed to be. That said, he showed he can do kickoffs in a pinch, as his one kickoff was a perfectly placed to the three yard line and muffed, which required a runback that started the Panthers’ final real drive at the 14. Folks who wish Brown would do this type of strategic kickoff were no doubt happy to see it’s in their arsenal, and Atkins at least showed he can throw a change of pace when the staff feels special teams need to throw out a change in momentum.
Shoutout to Bryson Nesbit, the tight end who caught that deftly thrown pass by Criswell. The first year tight end may not see the field much this season due to depth, but that he was in for that drive means he’s shown the staff something, and it’s hopefully a good sign for tight end usage down the road...Power Echols was emblematic of another strong night for the secondary, as the tackles were spread all around and he got the lone pickoff for the team. No one on the squad had more than five tackles, and the work was spread around.
Saturday night was fun, let’s do another Saturday night shall we? Stay with us all week as we prepare you for the suddenly huge Coastal division showdown against Virginia.