The benefit of letting things sit and not writing this post immediately after a game is that you have a chance to cool down and look at things objectively. Usually that means things aren’t as bad as you want to make them, or as good. You let the emotions simmer and you make sure you don’t say something horrid about a bunch of 18-22 year olds who let their bodies get beat up for your entertainment.
But man, I’m struggling to be objective about this Georgia Tech loss.
First and foremost, all the credit in the world to Georgia Tech. It looked early they were ready to fold up and let the Tar Heels have it, and Carolina wouldn’t take it. Eventually they figured some things out, and a team on its third-string quarterback and an interim coach won easily their biggest game of the season. They are probably about to get throttled by a Georgia team next week that hasn’t looked great since their win against Tennessee, but somehow this squad has gathered five wins in a season that looked lost.
There’s no other way to put it: a lot was lost for Carolina on Saturday Night, and as baffling as it is, the finger of blame goes to the offense and not the defense. So many things went wrong, and yet the Tar Heels still had multiple chances to take the lead late in the game. Some would say that after multiple games they should have lost, they were due to let one go, but there’s nothing wrong with being upset about the opportunity lost.
Let’s get right into it, believe it or not, we have winners, a lot to go into with losers, another great #ACCRefs moment, and other things we need to point out.
Elijah Green-Yes, he had some issues later in the game but for someone who didn’t even appear on the running back depth chart, running for longest touchdown of the season is remarkable. Green started the game with the 80-yard run from scrimmage, and scored the only two touchdowns for the Tar Heels. He should have had three if not for a bad timed holding call that would have extended Carolina’s lead and given hime almost 200 on the ground. He still has some mistakes in him, but he’s earned a regular rotation spot going forward.
Cedrick Gray-Carolina’s defensive effort was really good for the first 25 minutes of the game, and arguably beyond. They gave the Tar Heels’ offense chance after chance, and somehow that offense only scored 17 points. The leading tackler was Gray, getting four solo tackles and 10 assisted, and he’s just been a force for a linebacking corps that has had to do some serious work for a worn down defensive line. I’ve said it before, but he deserves at least an All-ACC selection. He’s not only leading the team with tackles at 122, but he’s leading the entire conference, and second place (Ayinde Eley) is fifteen behind him. The closest Tar Heel to him in tackles is Power Echols at 88. He has appeared in every single game in his UNC career, and he could go pro after this season OR he could stay for two more since his first year was 2020. He’s an anchor for the linebackers and deserves a ton of praise.
Ben Kiernan-I imagine that most fans were not expecting to see the Dublin, Ireland senior as much as they did, but on a cold night in Kenan he did his job to at least pin Georgia Tech back. Three of his five punts ended up inside the 20, he nailed one punt to roll for a total of 60 yards, and the Yellow Jackets only returned one punt for a grand total of five yards. He’s another player that’ll have a COVID year if he wants it, and the Tar Heels would be well-served with him back making kicks should he decide to do it.
A unique season-Let me clarify something before we mourn what was lost. Thanks to the Tar Heels clinching the Coastal last weekend, this team still has a chance to accomplish things that they will remember for a long time: an 11 win season, an ACC Championship, and a trip to the Orange Bowl. These things are not common for Carolina Football, and if they can turn around and avenge their, arguably, worst loss last season this Friday a lot will be forgiven.
With that said, the chances to be in the discussion for the CFP and have a player be a major Heisman candidate are rare, especially in this age of the four-team playoff. Carolina lost any minuscule chance at the CFP on Saturday, and the game is going to be a pretty big blemish on Drake Maye’s resume as he tries to get to New York. The CFP is gone, but, Maye’s Heisman campaign may not be done. C.J. Stroud had a bit of a pedestrian day in Maryland, and Hendon Hooker lost his game against South Carolina.
If Maye can learn from his mistakes and rally with good games against tough defenses in NC State and Clemson, he’ll be back in the discussion and at least earn an invitation. The sad part is that his number should have been A LOT better, but others on his team let him down. The problem is, Heisman voters are not going to watch Carolina play Georgia Tech, they are just going to see 16-30, 202, one interception, zero touchdowns. It’s on Maye to show that was an exception and not a rule.
Coaching-Rather than break it down to sides of the ball, let’s just give it to the entire coaching staff for this one. The biggest and primary problem for this game was Phil Longo and the offense, as it seemed clear from the jump the game plan coming in was to play not to lose. Maye barely ran the ball and instead held it way too long, there were several times when the ball was just handed off and not blocked well at all, and there never seemed to be a sense of urgency that the squad might lose.
Honestly, the biggest sign that the offense wasn’t playing with the same killer instinct came off the lone interception of the game for UNC. Storm Duck made a great play to intercept the ball and start the offense at the Tech 39 yard line. The first play after that with the Tar Heels up 10-0? A handoff to Omarion Hampton for four yards. Sudden changes are a perfect time to throw a pass and get a quick score, and instead Longo took the air out of the building with four straight runs before finally trying a pass on 3rd and 2, which was missed, and then a Drake Maye run under center. Five of six plays after an interception at the +39 were runs, the Tar Heels failed to convert, and the wheels basically started to come off. I could go on, but to me, that drive was the biggest microcosm of the mindset going into the game and that killed them.
The Defense isn’t innocent in this loss, either. Again, give them credit for holding Georgia Tech scoreless until the end of the second quarter, but when Georgia Tech is rotating quarterbacks and basically down to their second, third, and fourth string guys, relying on gimmick plays to move the ball, you have to make plays to help your team. Specifically, looking at Tim Cross, how can your defensive front not register a single sack against this Georgia Tech team? Multiple times the house was sent and not only did they fail to get to the quarterback, the pass was completed to the back who was able to get a big gain. Tech only passed for 187 yards so the problem wasn’t the secondary, but at the end of the game when you needed the team to make a 3rd and 4 and a 3rd and 9 stop, you couldn’t. That’s squarely on the defensive line, and another position that needs to be looked at at the end of the year.
Finally, Mack Brown can’t escape this discussion, either. It’s well known that he is a CEO type of coach and will give a wide attitude to his coordinators, but at this point it’s clear he needs to step in sooner when things just seem to be falling apart. Longo has earned the benefit of a lot of doubts, but when things aren’t going your way and you only score one touchdown in four red zone trips, something isn’t working and the head coach needs to get in there.
Receivers-Drops, drops, drops (everybody!). Nesbit, Downs, and Jones struggled to hang onto the passes thrown their way. You feel awful for Downs, who was upset enough at having the leading score in his hands and just dropping it that he actually deleted his social media on Sunday. I’m going to make this clear: the Tar Heels are not 9-2 unless Downs plays, and it’s been clear for the last couple of weeks he’s going out there at well under 100%. The others have to be better about bringing in the passes that Maye puts up, and one wonders if this was a big reason why Maye was holding the ball a lot longer than he normally would. In essence thinking, “These guys are open and the passes are getting there, I just need to get them a chance.” In short, the biggest reason that Maye’s Heisman campaign took a hit is because his receivers wouldn’t make the plays, and he had to start forcing the ball more and more. Hopefully this was a one game thing, because otherwise this season could have an ugly ending.
#ACCRefs Moment of the Week
UNC fans are going to yell at the holding call on Nesbit that negated Elijah Green’s second long touchdown run after replays made that look like a questionable call, but I’m going to go with the call of a catch and a fumble for the second week in a row. In the third quarter, Drake Maye found an open Nesbit who just barely couldn’t come up with the catch. However, instead of it being incomplete, the official threw the bean bag, Tech came up with it, and ran it almost all the way back.
We all had to waste time while the officials went under the hood for a play where the last thing it could have been was a catch and a fumble. The play was so instantaneous that there was zero chance Nesbit would have made a football move. The only thing that should have been reviewed was whether or not it was a catch. On replay, even if you consider that he made a football move, his knee was down before the ball comes loose. If you say it was a catch and fumble, the play should have ended there. Not going to argue the ultimate result of an incomplete pass, but how is this so hard to the point where you’re going to rule a catch and fumble?
Bryson Nesbit was the unlikely leader in receptions, getting four for 85 yards. Without Antoine Green on the field someone else has to step up as a deeper threat and Nesbit tried, but he also had a few untimely drops...Storm Duck has found his groove here late in the season. He’s sneaking up to the top of the ACC leaderboard with four interceptions, and nabbed the only one for the Tar Heels on Saturday. Just having someone reliable in that secondary is a huge help, and clearly Georgia Tech learned their lesson, as they really didn’t pass deep after that play.
The Tar Heels have a short turnaround, as a struggling NC State team looking to salvage their season with a win against the Tar Heels comes into Chapel Hill Friday. Did they get all of their mistakes out of them this weekend to play a solid game against the Wolfpack? We’ll see. In the meantime, enjoy your Thanksgiving!