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UNC vs. Virginia: Three Things Learned

Last night we got to see future Heisman quarterback Sam Howell run wild on the Cavaliers.

NCAA Football: Georgia St. at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

What a turnaround for this Carolina football team. After starting the season only scoring a measly 10 points, the Heels since then have scored a blistering 118 points on the way to back-to-back victories. The kicker? One was against Georgia State, yes, but last night’s was against last year’s ACC Coastal division champion, Virginia.

If you are either the Cavs or the Heels, I don’t know what you do with your defensive film. Sam Howell and Brennan Armstrong were on fire all night long, with Armstrong finishing the game completing 39 passes for 554 yards, four touchdowns, and an interception. We’re not here to talk about what the Cavaliers were able to do well, though. Let’s talk about what the Tar Heels were able to accomplish, and not accomplish, against Virginia in their important home victory.

Sam Howell has become more dangerous than ever

This past offseason, Sam Howell reportedly did a lot of work on his body to prepared for his 2021 campaign. His work has paid off in ways that I personally wasn’t expecting, and this game was a great example of that. He finished this one completing 14 passes for 307 yards, five touchdowns, and one interception. On the ground, however, is where we need to shine the spotlight, as he ran 15 times for 112 yards.

Howell’s work in the option game last night was nothing short of magnificent. While it’s really hard to watch him take contact and risk injury, he has been tearing through defenses with ease. He has been impressive all season long knifing through defenders, breaking tackles, and overall showing a level of toughness that this offense sorely needs in order to have success this season. This goes without saying, but he was also extremely impressive throwing the ball despite one really ugly interception. This may be Howell’s best performance so far this season, and there will almost certainly be more to come.

By the way, a special shoutout to Josh Downs, who had another ridiculous performance. He caught eight passes for 203 yards and a pair of touchdowns, and averaged 25.4 yards per catch. Needless to say, he’s making it easier to accept Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome going to the NFL.

Opponents are safe in the pocket

Let’s take a break from how awesome last night’s performance was to talk about something not so fun. Last week I was critical of Jay Bateman’s play-calling, but I was specifically referring to the run defense. My criticism was applicable to the pass defense as well, stating that the three/four-man rush wasn’t working when it came to getting to the quarterback. Well, UNC managed to record three sacks by throwing more guys at Armstrong, but there were still way too many missed opportunities to count. There were also way too many clean pockets for Armstrong to throw in, which Virginia’s offensive line deserves a lot of credit for. However, this is definitely a theme with UNC’s front seven, and it’s extremely frustrating to watch.

It’s hard to really give any kind of thorough detail when it comes to what’s happening, but what we can say is Bateman has called for a lot more aggressive blitz packages. Kaimon Rucker and Tomon Fox managed to get to Armstrong, but every other player struggled. Hopefully Hall of Fame coach Mack Brown can find some way to figure out what the issue is, because I personally am at a loss.

Ty Chandler is hitting his stride...maybe

Despite taking a lot of heat from analysts and fans alike, the running backs performed really well against Virginia. More specifically, Ty Chandler showed us all that he is better than we all thought, finishing the game with 20 carries for 198 yards and two touchdowns. We saw a player that played more aggressive than he was in the previous two games, found ways to break tackles, and ultimately just ran like someone who had something to prove. It’s a bit more understand able now why Mack Brown wanted him so badly for the beginning of the season, and one can only hope that he is able to build upon this performance and be the go-to running back for the Tar Heels.

While it’s easy to give credit to Chandler alone, we also have to give props to the offensive line. They were able to create some really good holes for the running backs to make their way through, which was not the case in the first two games. We’ll have to see if they can replicate their success on the road against Georgia Tech next weekend, but I am cautiously optimistic that Ty Chandler, as well as the other running backs, may be turning a corner and are ready to help make this offense a force to be reckoned with.