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UNC drops season opener on first half and offensive line futility

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They could have won and they didn’t, but really they shouldn’t have even been close.

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Virginia Tech Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

The fact that Carolina had a chance to march down the field and tie the game against Virginia Tech in the closing minutes of their season opener is not a testament to anything particularly inspiring the Tar Heel offense did. Instead, the Heels were simply trying to walk through the door that the Hokies had left open since they called off the dogs late in the first half. What happened after that was a series of unforced errors that will have the potential to haunt this team as they try to win the ACC Coastal.

From the jump, UNC looked badly affected by the crowd at Lane Stadium and the play of the Hokies’ offense. Virginia Tech scored on their opening drive and went up 14-0 in the second quarter. It looked like they might have time to extend that lead before going to half time, but they declined to push their luck with UNC’s offense struggling to do much of anything.

Getting the ball in the second half, Sam Howell was able to put together a scoring drive in the third quarter that finally got Carolina on the board. A combination of ineffective (and at times offensive) offensive line play and receivers having passes soar through their hands or bounce off their chests put Howell and co. in quite the pickle. Josh Downs was the bright spot in the receiver corps, responsible for the Heels’ only touchdown.

Tech was held to only a field goal in the second half after the defense really stepped up their game in the second half. That improvement, and some mistakes from the Hokies, gave the Tar Heels every chance in the world to even the score. The teams traded crucial interceptions before Virginia Tech did UNC a solid by missing a field goal that preserved at least the potential of tying the game. The Heels missed a chance to cut the deficit to three points when they had to settle for a 31-yard field goal with just under six minutes remaining, but there was still a chance.

On their final drive, it took extreme and inexplicable heroics to salvage the drive into Hokie territory. Carolina picked up a first down on a nine-yard completion to Ty Chandler. DJ Jones ran for three yards on second down and, in a move that defies all logic, no one called timeout. There were three remaining and no one called timeout.

In all of the confusion, Howell threw an ill-advised pass that was called an interception. Was it actually an interception? Well, that’s up for debate, but the call stood on the field. Maybe the result would have been the same if they’d called timeout, we’ll never know, but the entire offense looked confused and should not have been in a position to try and cobble something together on the fly in that spot while precious time ticked off the clock.

A lot has been made of the offensive talent that Carolina lost in the offseason, and tonight’s game will certainly be bulletin board material to further that narrative. Downs was the only effective and reliable receiver with his 123 yards and touchdown. The rest were hopefully just shaking off rust because otherwise the result is nothing but nightmare fuel.

The offensive line has simply got to protect Howell better going forward if he hopes to make it through the season. He was sacked six times, knocked down numerous other times, and he threw three picks. It was not a banner night by any means.

There will be a chance for improvement next week when the team hosts Georgia State under the lights in Kenan Stadium.