Carolina fans with frayed nerves and full ashtrays can exhale now. The Tar Heels won on the road, again. To a non-Power 5 team, again. Teetering on the brink of collapse. Again.
The first bye week of the season comes at a splendid time, as Carolina needs some players to get healthy, and the defense could use some more time on the practice field, though they ended up playing much better against the Blue Panthers than the Mountaineers.
Here are three things learned from a pulse-raising win over Georgia State.
Quit scheduling early season Group of Five road games
UNC has not had great luck with their early season schedule since Mack Brown’s return to Chapel Hill. Beginning with the upset win over South Carolina in Charlotte, to opening against ACC opponents Syracuse (home) and Virginia Tech (away), these openers are all opportunities to fall on your face and stunt progress made over the summer.
Beginning the season against Week Zero opponent Florida A&M was ideal. The Rattlers are an FCS team that could not reasonably expect to win, and if Mack Brown hadn’t named Drake Maye as the starter, they presented UNC with an opportunity to play two quarterbacks. But then we went on the road to two Group of Five stadiums that would be the Super Bowl for each school.
Just like in playing soccer, you want to run by going through the gears. You can’t stand still then break off into a dead sprint. You’ll risk a calf/hamstring/thigh muscle injury. This schedule would have made more sense if Carolina knew Sam Howell was coming back for his senior year, but it became a tough test for a redshirt freshman quarterback to navigate, made even more difficult without his top receiver, a valuable running back, and starting right tackle.
No matter now. UNC prevailed in its non-conference schedule, though it wasn’t exactly pretty. Notre Dame can definitely take advantage of mistakes the Heels made against App State and Georgia State that went unpunished. Carolina can definitely use the bye week to rest and prepare for the Irish in equal measure.
Defense responds better to UNC turnovers
In the fourth quarter of the App State game, a Nate Noel rushing touchdown brought the Mountaineers’ margin down to 13. Drake Maye ran the ball on 1st & 10 up 41-28. He fumbled on that first play of the drive, giving App State the ball on UNC’s 28-yard line. Three plays later, App State was down 41-35. Pepto time.
Fast forward to the start of the second half at Georgia State. The Panthers received the ball first and score a touchdown, shrinking Carolina’s lead 21-17. On the first play of the UNC’s next drive, Maye tried to float a pass to Kobe Paysour, but it was gobbled up by Jacorey Crawford for Maye’s first career interception.
Georgia State started at their own 43-yard line and ripped off two quick first downs on three running plays before UNC stopped the drive with a Noah Taylor sack on 3rd & 7, forcing the Panthers to kick a 45-yard field goal.
Last week, a turnover was the beginning of an error-avalanche by UNC’s defense. Yesterday, the Heels defense survived a pick and two fumbles. That’s progress, no matter how you slice it.
Hampton emerges from the doghouse a hero
Omarion Hampton had a quiet first quarter that ended with a bizarre kick-off return play. Instead of letting the kick-off bounce out of bounds for a penalty, Hampton caught the ball right at the 2-yard line at the sideline boundary, and his momentum carried him out of bounds. UNC ball at their own two-yard line.
Hampton’s number wasn’t called that often for the rest of the half, and he was pretty quiet in the third quarter until Carolina’s fourth drive, when he finally busted loose, first for 8-yards on a 3rd & 1, and then on the next play, when he was shot out of a cannon for a 58-yard touchdown.
Hampton was similarly effective on UNC’s first drive of the fourth quarter. Carolina got the ball on their own 8-yard line and Hampton immediately ran for two first downs on consecutive plays before ending the drive with a two-yard touchdown dive.
Early miscues like the botched return could have put Hampton in a bad headspace. Fortunately, the true freshman stayed focused and pounced on his next opportunity on a day the Tar Heels really needed him. Caleb Hood was out injured, George Pettaway had a quiet afternoon (2 yards on 5 carries) and D.J. Jones was hot and cold, with a touchdown, 61 rushing yards, 23 receiving yards, and a back-breaking fumble.
Georgia State were effective in limiting Carolina’s passing attack in the second half. Omarion Hampton’s surge at the end of the third quarter was just what the doctor ordered to keep Carolina’s head above water.