For an opponent that has frustrated UNC in both football and basketball for almost four years, it felt pretty good for UNC’s football team put up basketball-type points in a football game while blowing out Virginia for the first time in a while. A comfortable in-conference win against a quality opponent helps to answer some questions that the first two games of the season had raised, but there are still areas of concern. Let’s evaluate:
So I guess dual-threat Sam Howell is just a thing in the world now? Howell attempted 21 passes and 15 rushes, and only about 4 of those runs were unplanned. That’s probably a pretty extreme ratio of runs to passes from the Tar Heel quarterback, but we’re definitely seeing him run a lot more than we’re used to from his first two years, and he’s doing it well — those 15 rushes went for 112 yards, or an average of 7.5 yards per carry. His option reads have improved tremendously from last year, and defenses still haven’t seemed to realize that he will beat a soft pursuit angle from your linebackers and get a first down if you don’t bear down on him.
As a passer, Howell started the game off with some fireworks, hitting three of his first 9 passes for touchdowns: a sitter to Josh Downs who blazed past the Wahoo defense, then a lofted deep ball to the back of the end zone that the 5’9 Downs somehow pulled down, and then a well-placed deep slant to Khafre Brown, who caught it in stride and ran away from the secondary on his way to the end zone. Then, he made one of the most baffling throws of his career, noodling a red-zone pass to a not-open Justin Olson and nearly getting pick-6’d in return in a sequence that seemed like it might singlehandedly turn the game Virginia’s way. Fortunately, he was back to his best self after that, and though he didn’t have much else to do, he executed in the air and on the ground, passing for two more touchdowns in the second half and making key connections on big downs. He didn’t always look as comfortable as a thrower as we’re accustomed to seeing him, and through three games, that’s starting to be a trend. I’m not sure whether to attribute that still to getting used to throwing with a body that’s lost ~20 pounds, a version of Cam Newton syndrome where being a focal point of the run game forces some compromise in one’s passing game, discomfort behind a shaky offensive line, or equal parts all the above, but hopefully this game goes a long way towards fixing that. He finished 14/21 for 307 yards and 5 touchdowns to one interception, and the fact that this is what he does when he doesn’t look all the way comfortable is just a reminder of how freaking good a quarterback he is.
Aside from Howell, the UNC run game had so far been a disappointment, averaging just around 3 yards a carry. While most of UNC’s running backs room are young and inexperienced and so a slow start wasn’t really unexpected for them, the real surprise was how poorly Ty Chandler had played through two games, mainly because of indecisiveness and an inability to find designed cutback lanes in split zone. Just by fixing the former issue and helped by improved offensive line play (more on that in a bit, of course), Chandler looked like an entirely different back on Saturday night, bursting out and taking 20 carries for 198 yards (9.9 yards per carry!) and two touchdowns. He’s still showing a heavy preference for taking his carries outside, but I can’t really complain about that when he kept getting positive results by hitting those outside lanes hard instead of waiting. Even taking away a 60-yarder that resulted from possibly the only split zone inside lane he found all game, Chandler averaged 7.5 yards per tote and played a key role in UNC’s control of the second half, where he racked up 132 of his 198 yards.
Playing second fiddle was Caleb Hood, who after a couple of quiet games announced his arrival to college football with nine tough carries for 66 yards and a touchdown. Hood brings power to UNC’s backfield, and that was evident as he repeatedly ran through weak tackle attempts and fought for more yardage than his runs seemed to deserve. He does seem to need to build up a head of steam before he can do any damage, as he was taken down for short gains by relatively minimal contact a couple of times, and it’s why I don’t think he’s necessarily a short-yardage or red-zone weapon at this stage of his career despite his bulk and power. Still, this game was a coming-out party for him and he should continue to give UNC a change of pace and style at running back as the season goes on. Neither back produced in the receiving game, with just one target between them, that being a deep shot to Hood — he’s clearly not ready for that responsibility yet, as new to playing running back as he is.
My goodness, Josh Downs is good. He’s now started 4 games for UNC and he’s already a star, and might even be the team’s best football player. Remember, Howell completed 14 passes. Eight of those were to Downs, as his twitchiness, burst, and speed were just too much for the Virginia secondary to handle. On screens, intermediate, or going deep, it didn’t matter — Downs just got open, and went off for 203 yards and two early touchdowns: one where he outsped the defense after a short gain, and one where he laid out on a deep corner and somehow caught the ball and got his elbow down in bounds without losing ball security. Even more impressive than the raw production is the fact that on 9 targets, Downs caught 8 passes, 7 of them were either first downs or touchdowns. The one that wasn’t was a 9-yard gain on first and 10. Downs is somehow a scoring machine and a chain-mover at the same time, and as this UNC offense figures out what exactly it’s supposed to be, his stardom in it, at least, is crystal clear.
The rest of the corps didn’t have a ton to do with only 12 targets among them, and they also have some work to do to take some pressure off Downs. Antoine Green and Khafre Brown each had a catch; Green moved the chains on a nice 11-yarder and Brown made a house call on a deep slant that looked pretty familiar to anybody who watched him against Georgia Tech last year. Green’s other target was a misfire to the end zone by Howell where he wasn’t really open, and Brown was targeted two other times but wasn’t on the same page with his quarterback — and also dropped a sitter that could have been another score after getting interfered with but shaking it off. Emery Simmons got inside leverage in the end zone on a deep route but didn’t have the separation Howell expected, so his lone target was out of his reach. Justin Olson ran a bad route to the end zone that led to the disastrous interception (Howell shouldn’t have thrown it; I’m not saying Olson is completely at fault) and has generally had a first 3 games to forget. The Heels did have some success getting manufactured touches for tight ends, though. Garrett Walston had three catches for 15 yards and a touchdown, and two of those catches were schemed up. Kamari Morales also had a schemed catch for a touchdown on a play-action rollout near the goal line.
Offensive Line: A
After taking a lot of deserved heat through the first two weeks of the season, UNC’s offensive line apparently had something it wanted to prove, even with Brian Anderson, Joshua Ezeudu, and Jordan Tucker all dealing with injuries that prevented them from starting. With Quiron Johnson, Ed Montilus, and William Barnes starting in their places and liberally rotating with them throughout the game, UNC turned in easily their best performance up front so far this season in both phases of the game. Howell was protected when he had to throw and when he was pressured, he usually had an escape route because of good communication. He was only sacked once. The run game was clean and everybody consistently hit their assignments and made it to the second level, helping out Chandler and Hood by making their primary reads more viable. Johnson got beat a few times, as we’ve learned to expect at this point in the season, but Montilus and especially Barnes acquitted themselves well, and combined with all three starters (especially Ezeudu and Tucker; Anderson only came in for emergencies) playing enough snaps to cover for their backups, UNC’s offensive backfield was rarely threatened by a defensive front that was 3rd in the ACC at generating pass rush pressure. That’s a huge win, and a sigh of relief for the Tar Heel faithful after a couple of worrying performances.
Look, Virginia’s offensive line is really good. They’ve been playing together for a while and David Hale ranked their unit the best in the ACC before the season because they led the conference in yards before contact per rush and had the lowest pressure rate, fewest tackles for loss allowed, and had the fewest blown blocks. They’re a well-coached group that doesn’t lack talent. And the UNC defensive line, especially Myles Murphy (who deserves way more snaps than he’s getting, by my eye), held up in the run game, seemingly having been coached to play the run before the pass. Their gap integrity was sound and they rallied to the ball quickly when it was clear that UVA was going to be running it, and they limited the ‘Hoos to 21 yards on 22 rushing attempts, with six tackles for loss. Unfortunately, UVA did a ton more passing than running, and in that phase of the game, the Tar Heel defensive line was a near non-factor. Three sacks in a game usually isn’t a bad stat, but usually you don’t face 54 passing attempts — a sack every 19 passing attempts just isn’t good enough, and it happened because the defensive line wasn’t able to force double teams from the UVA offensive line to allow blitzes through, let alone collapse pockets on a semi-regular basis. Chris Collins does get credit in the box score for forcing a fumble that allowed UNC to take a two-possession lead early in the game, though it wasn’t clear how much influence he had on what looked like a garden-variety botched handoff. Armstrong was rarely harassed on his 54 passing attempts, and that reverberated throughout the entire defensive performance, but it starts with his having room to step up and deliver because defensive linemen weren’t condensing the pocket.
I’ll start with the outside linebackers for a change. They’re the other half of the pass rush I maligned in the above section, but unlike the defensive line, they did some good things against the UVA passing game. Tomon Fox seemed to be the only pass rusher who won with any regularity against an opposing offensive lineman, pressuring Armstrong four times and sacking him once. Kaimon Rucker didn’t win as often, but he did make his wins count, collecting UNC’s other two sacks and standing out as an impact player. That’s where the good news ends, though. Des Evans had a disappointing game, with no tackles and just one pressure — his most notable play was jumping offsides on a 3rd and 6. He’s got to do better as the season continues, and the upcoming stretch of games, against less gimmicky and less potent offenses, could be what he needs to simplify the game for himself.
On the inside, after making a few splash plays against Georgia State, Cedric Gray earned the start over Eugene Asante, who had struggled through two games with his patience and discipline. He cashed in on the opportunity with 6 tackles and a pass breakup, but he still doesn’t really solve the problem of UNC’s inside linebacking corps, namely that it consists of two players who are both much better chasing the ball than dropping back in coverage. He wasn’t frequently caught out of position, per se, because he could usually stop a big play from happening, but he also isn’t comfortable enough to get himself in position to make a play, or prevent one from being made. Jeremiah Gemmel has a similar problem, but his five tackles on the game are at least a sign that he’s finding ballcarriers again. Asante rotated in for backup snaps and I didn’t really see a drop-off. We’ll see how this situation shakes out in coming weeks.
UNC’s defensive backs room was purported to be its defensive strength in the offseason, with Ja’Qurious Conley making his mark at safety alongside Tony Grimes and two established starters. They weren’t really tested in the first two games of the season against, to put it charitably, not-very-good passers, so this game, against an offense that loves to air it out and a very good quarterback, was going to be their first real test. And while Armstrong’s numbers are a little inflated thanks to his throwing 54 passes and Jay Bateman doing a lot of bend-don’t-breaking on the back end after UNC went up multiple scores, it’s still got to be pretty sobering to have a UNC-opponent record number of passing yards hung on you as a group. Kyler McMichael was victimized pretty much the whole game and Tony Grimes had a particularly atrocious second quarter as Dontayvion Wicks and Billy Kemp combined for 15 catches and 289 yards, with Wicks doing a lot of downfield damage while Kemp consistently moved the chains. Conley played pretty well overall in the first half but his starting partner Trey Morrison still looks out of place at safety and found himself out of place quite a few times. Things got a little better in the second half and the UNC defensive backs didn’t really get beaten deep again, but what really changed the game was Conley’s uber-athletic interception late in the third quarter that gave Sam Howell and the offense the ability to go up 3 scores and effectively end the game. Bateman’s defense so far has mainly succeeded not based on limiting damage, but on getting offenses off schedule with tackles for loss and turnovers, and the main difference between his (bad) first halves and (good) second halves has been that in second halves, he’s found ways to do that based on what he sees in the first half. On Saturday night, the biggest, and maybe only way UNC managed to do it was with Conley’s pick, and for that, the unit gets a huge grade boost. Aside from the base four, Don Chapman at nickel back dropped two interceptions and rarely put in a good coverage rep, making his continued stronghold at that position a little baffling. Also, Storm Duck saw his first action of the season, and had four tackles, usually at the back end of a reception. Again, there was a lot of bending and trying not to break. But it’s good to see Duck in action at all; he’s so good at full speed.
Special Teams: A-
This group is easier to grade this week than most, because I don’t have to consider the punting at all! Ben Kiernan only ever left the sideline as a holder, because UNC never punted. That makes two straight years where UNC didn’t punt against Virginia, and somehow they aren’t 2-0 in those two years... I digress. Josh Downs had an excellent punt return of 37 yards that started a UNC drive in UVA territory for the most exciting special teams play of the night. Everything else was pretty standard: Grayson Atkins hit all his extra points and a 34-yard field goal and missed a 54-yarder wide right, losing some of his leftward slice as the game went on — maybe there’s hope yet. Jonathan Kim hit all of his kickoffs into the end zone, though one of them had to bounce at the 12-yard line before it got there. I’m still baffled as to why Mack Brown employs a walk-on to just boot it as deep as he can instead of trying to force returns, which favor the kicking team, but Kim is doing the job he’s assigned as well as can be expected. There might be some bellyaching about attempting the 54-yard field goal, because missing it gave UVA the ball at their 37 with a minute and three timeouts to try (and succeed) to score, but kicking is the right decision there, if only because punting inside your opponent’s 40 is a slap in your offense’s face, so I’m not going to say the special teams coaching made a mistake there.
I don’t know how much longer Jay Bateman and Phil Longo can pull off their tandem trend of disappointing first halves, perfect halftime adjustments, and impressive second halves, but I’d really appreciate if they built in at least one contingency into the original gameplan while scouting their opponents. Bateman seemed to come in ready for the Cavaliers to try and run from a bunch of different formations and personnel groupings, and as I mentioned above, all UVA had to do was line Armstrong up in shotgun to sling the ball around and Bateman couldn’t really answer until after halftime. Bateman’s also seemingly fallen a bit too in love with having a serviceable two-deep lineup, rotating players in the front seven on almost every play, or at least every opportunity the offense gives him. In this game especially, this caused a lot of confusion caused by a lack of continuity or communication between players on the field, with players subbing on not adequately communicating lineups and/or playcalls. This led to at least one burned timeout, a penalty, and several quick strikes by the UVA offense taking advantage of confusion in the middle of UNC’s defense. Longo, meanwhile, didn’t have a whole lot to do in the first half thanks to all the quick-strike touchdowns, but did have a stretch of two straight red-zone possessions in the second quarter where he called a bunch of passing plays, none of them particularly creative, and ended up with a field goal and an interception for his trouble. In the second half, he relied much more heavily on the run game both generally and in the red zone, and UNC’s offense was just about perfect. If he’s able to trust the ground game, even if it means including Howell as a runner, I think the kind of offense we saw most weeks in 2020 is still on the table.
Mack Brown himself, though, was pretty disappointing insofar as the things he can control on the sideline. Most egregious was his complete mismanagement of the clock on UNC’s two-minute drive to end the first half. After a few plays got the Heels into UVA territory, Howell was sacked on first down, so Brown used a timeout with a minute and 20 seconds left — prime time to remind players of what not to do to hand your opponent points. Then, Howell ran out of bounds to avoid pressure on second down and tried a deep ball to Caleb Hood on third down that of course fell incomplete. About 15 seconds had come off the clock. Howell running out instead of falling in bounds and Hood not trying to work the middle of the field instead of going down the sideline are both coaching errors, and fall on the head man in what’s becoming a pattern of clock unawareness. Whoever he has helping him with clock situations needs to be reevaluated. The other aspect of the game I thought Brown was lacking in was game management regarding flow and officiating. Virginia played a dirty game, with at least three called facemasks to go with several uncalled, crown-led shots to UNC helmets that got brushed off as accidental (including to Howell), and, most galling, a sequence where a UVA defensive lineman punched Quiron Johnson’s helmet, then pulled it off by the facemask, and then punched at his unguarded face, and only got called for a facemask rather than being replay-reviewed and rightly thrown out for that particular brand of unsportsmanlike conduct. Brown was seen asking about a couple of questionable calls, but I didn’t see anything for the situations that threatened the game’s safety, and that’s a shame, especially because the safety being threatened was nearly unilaterally that of the Heels on the field. UVA players also went down for injury timeouts seemingly every other defensive play, disrupting UNC’s rhythm and gaining unearned rest time for cramps that wore off after just a play or two. Maybe the ‘Hoos were poorly conditioned, but if I were Brown, I’d have been asking for delay of game penalties at least after the fifth such occurrence, but there was nothing there. It’s hard to ask a team to be punished for injuries, but that’s why you’re the boss — you have to see when tactics are being used, even when they’re playing on sympathy and good, honorable protection rules.