This post is usually a “Winners, Losers, and Honorable Mentions” from the prior game, but after that horrific display we witnessed on Saturday night, even trying to type up “winners” would feel disingenuous at best. This program suffered the worst loss of the Mack Brown 2.0 era on Saturday night, and that becomes obvious when you look at just how much came crashing down as a result of the 45-22 beatdown suffered.
So instead, this entry is going to just talk about all that was lost-from the coaches, to the players, to the fans, as this result felt like a real fork in the road moment that none of us expected. Let’s just go ahead and drive right in:
Mack Brown: Look, the coordinators are going to get their fair share here but at the end of the day, Brown is the guy who goes up in front of the cameras and is the man who sells the program to us the fans, the recruits, and the media. Beyond the usual platitudes of what they need to improve, the sell job done by Mack does not match the results on the field, bar none, and that makes him look like he’s been a snake oil salesman going into the season. A huge reason for the hope that fans felt was because of the man in charge, and the results on the field have yet to yield the results promised. The question is whether he’s taking too much control or not enough, as we all assume he has a “CEO” style of leadership, and he’d likely defer to a third year quarterback and offensive coordinator, but his slowness to step in and right the ship when things are obviously not working has cost this team any chance at a dream season. If Brown wants to continue the momentum he’s built, some things are going to have to change.
Phil Longo: My biggest fear going into the game was that Longo would look at how good a job Georgia Tech did stopping the run and feel like he had to prove a point by running the ball. The fear had its merits, as the OC has shown a constant streak of stubbornness to just go with what he wants instead of making adjustments, and it bit them Saturday night. The constant desire to have Howell run the ball for some reason led to three fumbles in the game, and despite having great success with the few short range throws that were actually called, way too few of those plays were used to try and keep the chains moving. Longo has arguably been outcoached in two of the three ACC games so far, and he didn’t exactly acquit himself well against UVa during the second quarter. The problem with a simple scheme is that teams know what to expect, and one wonders if Longo’s ideas have hit the point where he can’t sneak up on anyone anymore.
Stacy Searels: The offensive line coach for the Tar Heels has to feel his seat getting especially hot. Georgia Tech came into Saturday’s game with two sacks total. Two. They got eight on Saturday night. We’ll get into some of them in a second, but the area of the team that was supposed to be a strength has been anything but in the two losses for Carolina. Once again the run game had trouble getting going, once again it felt like Sam Howell was scrambling for his life, and once again a team had very little trouble blowing past the offensive front to cause havoc in the backfield. Several replays show Georgia Tech players coming in without any resistance, and the fact is that it got worse as the game went on. It’s just unacceptable at this point, and baffling considering what was expected coming into the year.
Jay Bateman: To be honest, I didn’t want to pin a ton of blame on the defense for Saturday because in the first half, they only gave up 13 points, 88 yards, and five first downs to the Tech offense. Seven of those points came when Tech decided that maybe the should use their mobile quarterback, Jeff Simms, and the game completely changed. Simms carved up the Tar Heels on the ground like so many mobile quarterbacks have before, and to see that in year three of a defense is baffling. Then you add this gem from Jeremiah Gemmel:
"We thought Yates was going to be the guy throughout the game, so we really didn't game-plan too much for (Sims)," Jeremiah Gemmel said.— Lauren Brownlow (@lebrownlow) September 26, 2021
A quick check of the stats for Sims shows why Bateman may have thought this, Tech only had played him once in the prior three games. Leading up to the game, however, Tech was pretty non-committal about who the QB would be, and that’s usually a huge red flag that if one guy struggles, the other guy will come in. It’s more than that, though, Bateman has shown an inability to adjust his defense quickly, instead needing a break to try and analyze what’s happening and adjust from there. You saw it against Virginia Tech, as the defense was woeful until the second half, and on Saturday the opposite happened where they were all set with Yates but completely flat footed against Sims. The book is out on Bateman: you can run your QB’s on him, and it clearly speaks to something schematically wrong. For him and Carolina to succeed, he's going to need to be quicker to adjust to changes and figure out what is so wrong with his scheme that mobile QB’s can eat the team alive.
Sam Howell: To say the shine is off Sam Howell is an understatement. I know my colleague Brandon here at Tar Heel Blog thinks he’s being asked to do too much, I’d argue that when you have a third year guy that’s projected to be a first round NFL pick and a dark horse Heisman candidate, you expect him to...act like it. It’s clear that even after a spring and summer camp that he still doesn’t trust this corps of receivers, but more than that, he’s regressed to just making silly mistakes. Multiple times on Saturday he held onto the ball way too long, running into sacks, and trying to make the home run play instead of chucking the ball to live for another down. Now that he’s been given clearance to run, he opted to do that way too much, fumbling the ball three times that led to half of Georgia Tech’s points. All these games of looking for the bomb have seemingly killed his ability to pass it short and keep the drive moving, though we know it’s possible for him to do that. He just gets in a mode where he feels like he has to do it all with one pass, and it just makes things worse. There’s next to no chance Howell picks up that Heisman, or even gets an invite, but there’s still enough time for him to hit the reset button and have a good season with the likes of Miami, Notre Dame, and Wake Forest still on the schedule.
Ty Chander: The Tennessee transfer has just not been able to adequately fill the void caused by Michael Carter and Javonte Williams leading, which wasn’t expected out of him, but the gap is so much more sizable than realized. The question is if the offense just doesn’t have confidence in him, or if he’s just not done enough on his own. Either way, he’s going to need a massive turn around in order to get what he was hoping to out of his season at UNC.
Receivers not named Josh Downs: For all the head banging done here about the problems of Sam Howell and Phil Longo...plays were there. Antoine Green, Emory Simmons, and Khafre Brown all had opportunities to help out their quarterback on Saturday night by making one extra dive, or one extra stretch, and reel in a pass that Howell put up. Doing that builds trust, and instead of it looking like the QB is trying to force the ball to you, you’ll get your shot when you get open. Saturday’s game likely looks a lot different if a few extra plays are made, as momentum is sapped from the Yellow Jackets and their attempt to run their mobile QB is futile as it’ll chew up too much time. You would think that a spring and summer would have been enough to help here, but clearly not. Hopefully a Duke team that isn’t exactly know for stopping the pass will provide some help there next week.
Secondary: A supposed strength of the team is also being exposed. It’s possible this is where the problem with a mobile quarterback lies, as guys at the front are more likely able to adjust the scheme when someone is known to take the ball and run as opposed to a secondary that has to account for the ball downfield. That said, that same secondary gave up a quarter mile in the air to UVa last weekend and ultimately was toasted on a couple of scores and the game deciding fourth down play. They just aren’t nearly as good as we thought they’d be, injuries have a lot to do with that, but in terms of areas that have been overhyped, this section of the field is likely the worst offender.
Fans: What makes this loss hurt more than any of the first two seasons is the realization that this season was supposed to be special. 2019 had frustrating moments, but they were in the Coastal race until the UVa game, and after the previous two seasons just seeing some upward momentum was fun. 2020 was a pandemic where we felt lucky to have football at all, and Carolina had two teams going to the College Football Playoff ahead of them. Maybe if they don’t stumble when they did they at least get to Charlotte, but in the end they still went to the Orange Bowl and it didn’t feel like any of the losses cost them something bigger. This season was different. Clemson is clearly not the same, the Coastal was there for the taking, and while the Playoffs were a bit of a pipe dream, getting to Charlotte seemed realistic. In four games, that’s gone now, and that’s crushing to a fan base that has been thirsting since Mack Brown 1.0 to be relevant. Every time it feels like the program is on the cusp, something happens to where they can’t get over the top, and now it feels like we’ve all been sold a false bill of goods. There are five home games left, but just about all of the joy of those games has been taken away thanks to the fact that the most you can play for is some mid-tier bowl game played before January 1. Even an upset win in Notre Dame won’t feel the same now because nothing will come of it. Carolina can finish 10-2, and while it would be great, the fact is they’d need serious help just to even make it to the ACC Championship game.
Recruiting: Mack has killed it in recruiting since coming back, but one wonders if the way the team is playing will have some folks throwing up their arms to say “wait a minute, what am I getting myself into?” The fresh faces on defense haven’t made the impact they’ve been expected to, the offense isn’t putting up the gaudy numbers that were expected, and now there’s a real question about how long Mack will have this staff together. For sure it’s unlikely that Longo and Bateman will get calls in the offseason about being head coaches, but you do wonder if Brown is going to consider a change at either position, which would really affect the gains made. If you’re looking for something these last eight games, it’s for the guys on the field to show the guys coming in they are getting what they signed up for.
Home Atmosphere: Saturday’s attendance is going to suck. The Duke game is technically a sell out right now, but with a noon kickoff against a flailing Duke team and seemingly nothing to play for, it’s fair to say there’s little reason to expect a bunch of fans in Kenan. Think pieces will be written about “soft Carolina fans,” pictures will circulate, and Mack is likely to angrily speak to the fact that fans have given up on the team. The problem with this is that when you charge over $60 for decent tickets, especially when they were sold that price because of hope of watching a special team, they are naturally going to react when that hope was completely false. Florida State is a train wreck right now, so there’s little reason to look forward to that game as anything other than a game they should win and an embarrassment if they lose, and Miami has also been shown to be a paper tiger. A win on Saturday made the schedule look like the Heels had a cake walk to Charlotte, because you know Virginia Tech would lose twice before the year was over, and now you’re staring at a slate of just going through the motions. Why invest what it takes to go to a football game for that, especially when it’s been the same thing over and over again? What had become a fun atmosphere is going to get sucked dry, and with the questions looming as next year starts, it’s going to take a while to get that trust built back again.
This one hurt. It hurt bad. For the first time since 2018 fans are basically ready to skip out on the rest of football season and look down the road to the Smith Center, and it didn’t need to be that way. Carolina Football sold its fans hope and came up woefully short on that promise. How much they’ll pay for this is yet to be seen.