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UNC vs. Virginia Tech: Winners, Losers, & Honorable Mentions

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That could have gone better.

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

Welp.

There’s no sugar coating both the disappointing nature of Friday night’s loss as well as the deflated feeling we all have about this football season. In a weird way it’s comforting that in these odd times that Carolina Football will always be Lucy Van Pelt and we will be Charlie Brown. This time, we are SURE she will not pull that football away at the last second.

If you’re reading this on Apple News, look up the Charlie Brown Football GIF if you need a visualization of the end result.

Just about any loss is going to hurt, but one where you had so much hype built into the season, followed by the schedule that isn't going to give you a good chance to rebut that dud until October, it stings even more. There’s just no other way to put it, but the season isn’t over by a long shot. That's what this list is here for: to remind you of some of the good that came out of Friday night while reveling in the pain.

Let’s make ourselves feel better before we get to the main course.

Winners

Josh Downs: It’s not like it was a secret he was going to be the top receiver on the team, but on a night where Sam Howell needed someone...anyone...to step up and bring some life to the offense, Downs did what top guys are supposed to do. He was responsible for the Tar Heels’ lone touchdown on a short pass that turned into a score when he turned on the jets. Give credit to VT’s secondary for bottling up the rest of the corps all night, but Downs’ 9/132 and one TD stat line sparkled when few others did. If he can do this when teams are focusing on him, you have to think he’s going to have some monster lines in the next few weeks.

Ja’Qurious Conley: The secondary was expected to be the strength of this Tar Heel team, and while Virginia Tech won, they held up their end of the bargain. Braxton Burmeister was limited to 12/19 for 169 yards, and his few long passes needed to be absolutely perfect throws in order to connect. Conley was also all over the field, leading the team in tackles with seven, six of them being solos, one of them being for loss. He recovered both Virginia Tech turnovers, which would have been bigger if Carolina had managed to, you know, score points on either of them. It’s good that at least one side of the ball showed up as advertised.

Ben Kiernan: Yup, we’re going punter here. That’s how Friday night went, but let’s be honest, he deserves the kudos. It was clear early on that the Hokies wanted to make a statement and one of the ways they wanted to do that was by sending everyone they could at Kiernan and trying to block a punt. The junior was unfazed, and while the length wasn’t special – he only averaged 42.2 yards per punt – Virginia Tech didn’t have a single punt return, and Kiernan didn’t succumb to the pressure. The Tar Heels likely don’t even have a chance if Tech gets to one of those kicks.

Classic Carolina Gear Fans: Quick plug here because this is so cool. Fifteen hours after the game was over, fans at least got a ray of sunshine from Homefield, as they released the UNC collection on their site. The folks at Homefield fill a huge void in the Carolina apparel market, as every piece in the collection features a classic look. The shirts are so soft, and your humble author was the benefit of a preview shirt prior to the release to the public.

For the record, an iPhone can sit perfectly upright on one of the South Building columns.

If you want this or any other item from this collection including sweatshirts that people swear are softer than the fur of 100 newborn puppies, click this link, check out the options, and use TARHEELBLOG to save 15%, AND get free shipping on a $70+ order.

OK, buckle up.

Losers

Sam Howell: Look, we could go the whole offense here, and he's not first on this list because he’s the main reason the Tar Heels lost. The problem is, Howell came in with a lot of hype as a Heisman hopeful, and these are the types of games a third year quarterback hoping to win that award win. Howell just seemed off all night, and regressed to some of his worst tendencies by forcing throws, holding onto the ball too long, and panicking when the offensive line didn’t seem to be able to protect him as well as he thought they would. We’ll get to the final drive in a second, but he also bears some responsibility for this by not simply calling a timeout before the final pick off. His paltry line of 17 for 32 with 208 yards was further marred by three interceptions. His Heisman hopes are not done, for sure, but he’s going to need to put up some major efforts against the remaining jewels in the schedule to get back into the conversation.

Every Other Receiver and Tight End: I wanted to just go with Garrett Walston here but it’s almost unfair to single him out when of Howell’s 208 yards throwing, Josh Downs was responsible for catching 132 of them. So yes, if you are doing the math, that means every other person that could catch a ball for the Tar Heels managed 76 yards. That was spread out amongst four other players, and of that 76 Emery Simmons managed 46 of them. It’s clear at this point that Howell doesn’t fully trust his new corps after the massive departures, but based on the sheer drops from...everyone...maybe it’s clear why. Simmons and Walston were especially egregious about not making the catch and putting the Tar Heels off schedule. Last season, receivers helped Howell look better by making the spectacular catch, and Howell could trust them to do it so he would put the ball only where they could get it. If they can’t make the easy catch, that trust disappears and the whole offense is in trouble. Hopefully, the next few opponents will allow for this to improve.

Offensive line: The supposedly experienced offensive line for the Tar Heels failed spectacularly on Friday. Five sacks allowed, 146 net rushing yards but 35 of them from Howell essentially scrambling for his life, and constant pressure against a defensive they had both seen and multiple camps to prep for. Now, the Heels didn’t have Brian Anderson on Friday and that could have a huge part in the result, but for a supposed strength of the team, the OL let the team down a fair amount.

Coaches: Yes, we’re going with a fourth loser here because we can’t just contain this to three. Ultimately, this isn’t the FSU or UVA loss from last year. Not only did an experienced team have those road games in the memory bank, but they had both a spring and summer camp to study and prep for what this team would do. From the absolute refusal to hand the ball off to Ty Chandler early on, to the inability to slow down the Hokies in the first half, to the just...dismal way the final drive went, capped off by the failure to use a single timeout when you have three in your pocket, the entire coaching staff needs to look in the mirror and take this L with the team this weekend. Jay Bateman gets a bit of a pass because the defense adjusted in the second half and gave the offense a real chance, but the ball control they got away with in the first half kept the offense from getting any rhythm. The Hokies were practically giving the Tar Heels the game, and the coaches did not put them in a positing to sneak out with a win. Phil Longo has brought a great offensive scheme to Chapel Hill, but his stubborn streak continues to handcuff this squad, and it feels like Mack Brown should have been more involved in the end to calm the team down on the last drive. That said, Mack is dealing with the loss of his brother this week, and while he won’t call that an excuse, it’s at least an explanation for why maybe his emotions may have been elsewhere at times. If this team is to have the type of season they want, they need to own up to this failure, and the fact that they were thoroughly out-coached by the Hokies staff.

Honorable Mentions

Ty Chandler made his Tar Heel debut, and his style is one that fans will have to get used to. It felt like he should have been given the ball more in the first half, as even Javonte Williams and Michael Carter would need a few handoffs to get warmed up, but Chandler has a style that tries to make the defender miss as opposed to the decisive style that both Williams and Carter deployed, granted in different ways. He still ended up with 66 yards, a 6.6 yards per carry average, and when you see that, he easily should have touched the ball more than he did, again, that’s on the coaching staff and Howell...DJ Jones was the other primary ball carrier Friday, and also had a pretty good 7.2 yards per carry average, so when the backs got the ball they would move it, the scheme for the Tar Heels was just past first a lot of the time, limiting the chances for the running backs...Trey Morrison lost the spotlight because of Conley’s sparkling game, but he also had seven tackles, five of them solo, and had a forced fumble. Braxton Burmeister rarely tested the defensive backfield on Friday, but if this is the type of production the secondary will constantly give, then the line should have a chance to make some real plays.

Enjoy the rest of your Labor Day weekend, and let’s get ready for next Saturday’s home opener.