Two losses in a row that on the face of current form looks destined to become three. A free fall in offensive production on a team that required the Tar Heels to put up basketball points to win games. When the well dried up, it got ugly. So it goes with UNC’s heartbreaking loss to NC State to close the regular season.
Carolina had lived on a razor’s edge all season, shrugging off defensive worries because the offense always bailed them out. Well, against Georgia Tech and NC State, the well ran dry, and the Tar Heels looked very ordinary. That’s being generous. They looked bad. Here are three things learned from a loss to NC State that is going to sting for years to come.
Special teams needs something special
The offense has been a shadow of itself for two games now. Ever since the fireworks at Wake Forest, UNC has looked like a different team. They only managed 17 and 24 points in regulation against admittedly good defenses that both had poor offenses. So what do you do to make up the difference?
One option is to make something happen in special teams. Carolina has not had a punt or kickoff return for a touchdown this season, and they have scored on an onside kick when they shouldn’t have (App State) and fallen down when the should have scored (Virginia). UNC needs more.
And I don’t want to kick Noah Burnette when he’s down, but goodness gracious. Missing a 27-yarder after hitting a 37-yard field goal earlier in the game is nuts. Make that, and the Antoine Green touchdown wins the game!
Part of the offense’s success this season has been Mack Brown’s willingness to go for it on fourth down, but you have to wonder if part of that is a hesitancy to trust his kicker. You’d much rather have Burnette kick extra points (where he’s 50 for 51 on the season) than field goals, where he missed two field goals against Virginia Tech and Duke, prior to botching two against NC State.
If Drake Maye and company don’t tighten things up in time for Clemson, special teams will need to give the Tar Heels something more.
My kingdom for a pass rush
I understand that Noah Taylor, Ray Vohasek, and Des Evans are out for the season, but for Carolina to only have eight sacks in eight ACC games is negligent at best, criminal at worst. For the second game in a row, UNC faced a back-up quarterback and made him as comfortable as possible visiting Kenan Stadium.
Ben Finley looked poised and unbothered as he diced up Carolina’s decimated secondary to the tune of 271 passing yards and two touchdown passes. Finley evenly distributed his passes to 10 different receivers, with his leading pass-catcher Devin Carter bringing in six catches.
Compare this to his visit to Louisville, where the Cardinals sacked him five times and limited him to a QBR of 57.3 (16 for 35 passing for 201 yards, 1 TD, 1 interception). These were two night-and-day experiences for Finley.
If Carolina can’t generate pass rush with the players they have, they’ll need to go into the portal to get some athletes that can get the job done and/or find a defensive line coach that can put the players in a position to succeed. Carolina can’t have more of the same, it’s wasting Drake Maye.
Longo goes galaxy brain again
NC State has a good defense. Their 3-3-5 stack is tough on quarterbacks who like to throw downfield, their cover corners are really good, and their linebackers are excellent. This was never going to be an easy day at the office.
At the end of the fourth quarter, Carolina had 1st & goal on NCSU’s four-yard line with 18 seconds left. Longo’s first play was a swing pass to Elijah Green, who was running to the short side (right) of the field. NC State’s two linebackers on that side were not blocked, and they gave Green no room to cut upfield.
On 2nd & goal, Maye went under center and pitched to Green, again to the short side of the field. He was tackled for a four-yard loss.
These plays were not likely to succeed and too cute by a mile. Constricting your own space to work with when you’re already packed in the red zone is a tough way to win, particularly with the type of linebackers NC State has.
This kind of nonsense play-calling needs to get sorted out. Clemson is next.