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UNC Football vs. Duke: Three Things to Watch

Moving forward after brutal disappointment.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 25 Mayhem at MBS - North Carolina at Georgia Tech Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

North Carolina’s hopes of competing for an ACC title are dashed — unless the mother of all Coastal Chaos develops — and the Tar Heels must now look at the rest of the season with new eyes. New goals must be formulated. New plans developed.

But while all of that is happening, one thing simply cannot. Mack Brown cannot lose to Duke. After a humiliating season-opening loss to Charlotte, the Blue Devils have won three straight against a bunch of nobodies, including a Kansas team that won its first game since 2019. Against South Dakota.

One should not dismiss Division I programs off-hand, but I will not waste time talking about how dangerous Duke is and how Carolina needs to be on guard for a sneak-attack upset. Instead, here are three things to watch as the Tar Heels look to right the ship as the embark on a three-game homestand of winnable games.

Sam Howell Back on Track

After a miserable day in Atlanta that likely took him out of the Heisman race, Sam Howell needs to get his mojo back in a bad way. Duke offers an expedient recovery route for his passing. I’m sure that Phil Longo may want to work on that aspect of Sam’s game, and leave more of the rushing to Ty Chandler and Caleb Hood (if he’s healthy).

Howell gave the Heels a new attacking dimension with his running, famously passing for 300+ yards and rushing for 100+ yards in consecutive games against Georgia State and Virginia. That production crashed into a brick wall against Georgia Tech, as the UNC quarterback was sacked eight times, fumbled and lost the ball three times, and went 25-39 passing with 306 yards.

Granted, he was let down by some brutal drops that would have kept drives alive, and in the case of Khafre Brown in the second quarter, scored a possible touchdown that would’ve doubled Carolina’s lead. Getting his completion percentage up, and getting more deep completions for touchdowns (and preventing Phil Longo from calling redzone plays) would be Pepto on the diarrhea-performance at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Earlier Look at Young Players?

Playing vets because they are familiar with the system is a sound idea when you’re rolling along undefeated and have something to protect. With two conference losses and Clemson’s toilet flush season likely pushing the ACC out of the CFP, UNC does not look like they’ll be in any position to achieve anything special this season.

So... does Mack Brown look to accelerate the development of some of his young stud recruits? We have only had a small sample size, but do exciting freshmen like Bryson Nesbit get a look in over established players like Garrett Walston? Do we start to see more meaningful snaps in the first half for defenders like Keeshawn Silver, Raneiria Dillworth, and Power Echols?

If the veterans can only produce a .500 record, then surely taking lumps with the kids will pay dividends next season when we can start fresh? Personally, I don’t expect wholesale changes, but I would not be surprised to see some more snaps for Power Echols at the very least. I’d also expect to see Kamari Morales take over the starting tight end spot, and hopefully some snaps for Bryson Nesbit, who shows some downfield ability that none of the other tight ends have shown.

Empty Stands for a Noon Kick-Off?

So far for UNC this season, the night time is the right time. The Heels have been in prime-time for all of their games, which was a blessing for the two games at Kenan, as it was still quite hot in Chapel Hill.

With the noon kick-off against Duke, which does not raise pulses for football the way it does for basketball, I’m worried that a lot of sold tickets may go unclaimed. Morale is down, and some fans may feel like they have been sold a bag of goods with all of the preseason hype heaped on the team.

Thank goodness Carolina ripped out the aluminum benches and replaced them with blue plastic seats. They should blend well on television with the crowd that remains.

If I may offer a humble plea to Tar Heel Nation, if you have tickets, go to the game. Cheer on the Heels mightily. Boo the Blue Devils ferociously. Let the team feel your support. If the program was ever at a crossroads, this is it. Mack 2.0 delivered results faster than even the most optimistic fan could have dreamed. Hitting a snag in year three is not a felony punishable by death. Show recruits that Chapel Hill is a destination to be coveted, not feared.

Winning this three-game homestand is very doable, and with a bye week to prepare for the trip to Notre Dame, this season could still turn out special. With a little (or a lot!) of Coastal Chaos, who can say just how special?