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UNC Football vs. Virginia: Winners, Losers, and Honorable Mentions

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The offense we expected showed up Saturday.

NCAA Football: Virginia at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

When the schedule was announced, it was easy to look past Virginia as a team that Carolina could easily beat. It was only after the struggles up in Blacksburg that honest worry fell on this game, and we were quickly reminded that the boys in light blue haven’t beaten the Wahoos since 2016. All the credit in the world goes to Bronco Mendenhall, as he’s taken a squad in Charlottesville and always put them in the discussion for the ACC Coastal.

In short, Virginia had every reason to feel confident coming into Chapel Hill, to the point where they weren't hiding it. We’ll get to that, but after taking Carolina’s first few haymakers, the Cavs came back to take the lead in the locker room. I can tell you the feeling in the stands was heavy with the “oh no, not again.”

Then they kicked the ball off for the second half.

Jay Bateman adjusted the defense, Phil Longo just decided to run the ball right at the Cavs’ defense-which clearly needs to work on its conditioning considering all of the cramps their players seemed to suffer on a muggy night in Chapel Hill-and a tight game turned into a laugher, 59-39. There’s a lot to look at with this one, so let’s dig into who won, who lost, and who deserves a shoutout after Saturday’s game.

Winners

Offensive Line: A part of the team that was supposed to be a strength for Carolina finally showed what all the hype was about on Saturday. You can look at the stats: 396 yards net rushing, only four yards lost for a total of 392, only one sack surrendered, and only one other tackle for loss. Stats don’t tell the whole story though, as watching the game you could see quarterback Sam Howell had plenty of time to make his decisions, clear running lanes were available all night for the backs, the defensive front for Virginia was completely gassed by the end, and the options for Howell were run to perfections without a single “ineligible receiver” penalty. There were also no holding penalties, a remarkable achievement for a squad that ran for almost 400 yards. The entire offense clicked so well on Saturday and it started with the offensive line playing by far their best game. If this is the level they’ll be at the rest of the year, the hype about this team may in fact be true.

Josh Downs: I mean, come on. If it wasn’t clear who the number one receiver was before, it’s clear now. Eight catches, 208 yards, two touchdowns. Both touchdowns were highlight worthy. Let’s just relive his night in video form, as it’s better than any words I could type.

One touchdown with the afterburners turned on, and one touchdown with a sensational catch in the corner of the end zone. He’s going to be a problem for the rest of the league and, oh yeah, he can return punts. After Carolina quickly retook the lead in the 3rd quarter, the defense got a key three and out. Downs took the resulting punt for a spectacular 38 yard return that set the Tar Heels up deep in UVA territory. The Tar Heels would cash that in to get back up by two scores. The Wahoos never seriously threatened again.

Ty Chandler: It was tempting to name all of the Tar Heel rushers here-they'll get a shout out later-but you have to single out the transfer from Tennessee. He had 20 attempts, 198 yards, two touchdowns, and an overall ridiculous 9.9 yards per attempt. I can tell you watching in person that Chandler spent less time trying to decide where to go and just committing to a lane. Again, it helped that the offensive line did such a great job, but it takes two to have that sort of effort, and Chandler more than rewarded the work of the beasts up front. It’s easy to argue his best play was the 60 yarder, but I’d actually say it was the drive near the end of the third. Chandler had just run for a first down, and it was handed right back to him on the fifth play of the drive. UVA bowed up and stopped him for Chandler’s only run for a loss, making a second and long. It seemed obvious that the Tar Heels would pass, instead, Howell gave it to Chandler again, and he burst ahead for 21 and was pulled down by his face mask. Three plays later Chandler got his reward with a rush to the end zone. The performance is what the Tar Heels had hoped for from the Tennessee transfer, and his success can only mean good news going forward.

Losers

First Half Defense: This is a problem. You want to give Jay Bateman credit for the adjustments in the second half and holding the Cavs to just 11 points, but when your offense scores 24, you expect the other side of the ball to at least make a few stops. Instead the Wahoos offense just passed all over the field, really biting what was supposed to be the strength of the team, the secondary. A ton of credit goes to UVA quarterback Brennan Armstrong, who dropped a few perfect passes to where only his guys could get it, but it’s not like UVA’s offense is a mystery this point. This is the third year this staff has seen the Wahoos play, and the second year they saw Armstrong. At some point you have to give your offense some breathing room so they don’t feel like they have to force the issue, which leads to Sam Howell throwing a horrid interception deep in UVA territory. The offense didn’t panic and took control in the second, but teams better than Virginia won’t let the Tar Heels off so easy.

Receivers not named Josh Downs: to a certain extent, this is unfair because Khafre Brown had a beautiful 75 yard TD catch from Howell, but of the 307 yards in the air, Downs was responsible for 203 of them. Take away that 75 yards for Khafre? 29 yards total in catches for everyone else. Defenses are quickly going to key in on Downs after these first two ACC games, and someone else is going to need to show they are a reliable option for Howell to keep defenses honest. Maybe part of that is the running game, because if you essentially have to double Downs that leaves less people to stack the front, but a lot of talent on the field is going to be seeing one on one coverage, and it’s time for them to step up and take advantage.

Mandy Alonso: Yeah, this is a UNC-Centric site but it’s impossible to let this go. You can check out Evan’s Three Things for a summary of the things the senior defensive lineman said, but it’s fair to say that if you’re going to talk the talk, you need to walk the walk. He and the Wahoos defense...really didn’t walk the walk. In fact they had a lot of trouble walking because they kept cramping up during Carolina drives. Alonso had a paltry two tackles in the game overall, and the defense really didn’t do anything to help their quarterback out with the exception of one pickoff in the second quarter. It was almost as if the Tar Heels’ offense had some extra motivation...

Seriously, my dude, you’re a senior in the age of social media. Having confidence is one thing, but don’t give extra fuel to a team you’ve beaten four times in a row. At least save it for after the game if you win, then you have the right to crow all you want. In the end, you basically proved why your team isn’t getting the attention you think they deserve.

Honorable Mentions

Sam Howell had a game for the record books, but we move him to here because of just the stellar work of those around him. The numbers are still insane: 14/21 for 307 yards, five touchdowns, 112 yards rushing for a 7.5 yard average, numbers that put him up with some elite ACC company. The thing is, he probably could have put up numbers similar to Armstrong, but the running attack was so strong he didn’t need to bother. His one blemish was the interception in the second that seemed to turn the tide of the game, a product of him yet again trying to do too much...Caleb Hood announced his arrival to the team on Saturday, with a solid 66 yard effort, a strong touchdown, and several downs in a row in the backfield. Between him and Chandler, the rushing attack had hints of the last two years, so we’ll see if the pair can keep it going...the defense didn’t have much to hang its hat on, but holding UVA to only 21 net yards of rushing was a huge reason why the Wahoos were force to put the ball in the air so much, that concentration on the pass lead to three sacks including two for Kaimon Rucker, who also had a forced fumble...Don Chapman led the team in tackles with seven, which is how you know that UVA just dominated the stats in the air.


Another 7:30 start looms for the Tar Heels next weekend, this time in Atlanta to face the Yellow Jackets. We’ll see if the offense can keep it up against a squad that held Clemson to just 13 points.