It was clear just from watching the broadcast that the Virginia Cavaliers didn’t play a very clean game in UNC’s 59-39 win against them on Saturday night, even beyond their 9 penalties for 102 yards and second-half ejection for targeting Sam Howell after a play was over. This only became clearer on rewatch for Twitter user @bkcheel, who clipped a few plays that made the rounds on Tar Heel Twitter for... well, you’ve probably seen them. If not, here they are:
And there were these plays on the same drive. Same player rips our centers helmet off and on the 2nd time he punches him with helmet on rips helmet off and then hits him in the face. Is this what UVa calls tough? It’s called dirty https://t.co/X9f21yD8O7 pic.twitter.com/U8NonYAIWs— bkcheel (@bkcheel) September 20, 2021
For those who can’t see embedded Tweets, there are two videos: the first involves three clips: first, Quiron Johnson’s helmet getting pulled off without a flag; second, a UVA linebacker diving at Sam Howell after he’d already been brought down for a 5-yard gain and the play was over; and third, the sequence of punch-pull helmet-punch unprotected face against Johnson that was flagged for a facemask (not unsportsmanlike conduct) and noted on broadcast.
The hit on Downs got a bit more attention than the shots at offensive linemen and Howell, probably because Downs has quickly become this season’s talisman while leading the Power 5 in receiving yards through three games, and because he’s smaller and thus looks a little more fragile than a 300-pound offensive lineman. As for Howell, the more prominent incidence of him being targeted did draw a flag and ejection, so there was at least some comeuppance there. It didn’t hurt that UNC defensive backs coach and Downs’ uncle Dre Bly quote-tweeted that hit (his Tweet has since been deleted) saying it had no place in the game of football. It also got attention from former UNC star Ryan Switzer, cornerback Tony Grimes’ dad, and the ACC Network’s late-night recap crew:
Hey Jim Phillips & the rest of the @theACC, are we seriously going to let cheap shots like this go undisciplined? Blindside block, defenseless player, away from the play, helmet to helmet, ALL OF THE ABOVE! Josh could’ve been seriously injured. https://t.co/1DSqXzOx0K— Ryan Switzer (@Switz) September 20, 2021
THIS IS NOT FOOTBALL‼️ IF YOU SAY IT IS; YOU ARE A WASTE OF SKIN. Dude is on defense. He should be pursuing the ball carrier; Instead; he was trying end Josh’s career. If the leadership of this program doesn’t invoke server consequences; the @ncaa need to fine the program‼️ https://t.co/k8tPyhgAdD— Coach Glover (@dhglover) September 21, 2021
Anyways, reporters including the News & Observer’s C.L. Brown and Tar Heel Tribune writer R.L. Bynum told us on Tuesday that a league source had indicated there would be no punishment towards Joey Blount, the Virginia safety who headhunted Downs, and we got confirmation of this on Wednesday morning, as Mack Brown told the media in his weekly press conference that UNC had sent the clips of the illegal contact against Downs and Johnson to the ACC league office and let them know he considered them teaching points about player safety for the whole conference, and that he’d “never been more disappointed with the response” he got from the league saying and/or explaining why they would not be punishing Blount or the UVA defensive lineman. He also added that he and the coaching staff weren’t aware of the hit on Downs until rewatching the game, though Downs mentioned it to a few teammates.
The ACC office itself rarely comments on matters of officiating — the last time I remember it happening was regarding the Miami miracle kickoff return several years back — so I doubt we’ll get further explanation unless somebody in the office is willing to speak anonymously to a reporter, which seems unlikely because of how nakedly bad the decision is. The most charitable interpretation is that the league thought the facemask penalty on the defensive lineman and Blount’s injury sustained in the same drive were punishment enough for their dirty play, which is obvious nonsense. Otherwise, the league in its inaction is making a statement that shots to unprotected heads and defenseless players are fine if the targets are not immediately hurt, and that’s just wretched given everything we know about long-term damage from playing football. Downs, for his part, had this to say: “I’m not happy with it, but it’s not that big of a deal... I’ve been cheap-shotted before... it is what it is, pretty much.” He seems, as we all are, thankful that he didn’t get hurt, under no illusions that the hit was anything other than dirty, but also ready to move on after a good win. Hopefully, even though they didn’t take action here, the league is at least on notice for the rest of the season, towards Virginia football and everybody else, so that when this happens again thanks to their tacit encouragement, they can correct a clear mistake and reset the league on the right course towards player safety.