It hasn’t been pretty. At all. Yet, when the clock hit 0:00 on Saturday, the Tar Heels strutted off the former Turner Field in Atlanta winning their third straight, heading into their scheduled off week ready to recharge, get healthy, and game plan against a reeling Notre Dame team that couldn’t do what the Tar Heels did: beat someone from the Sun Belt.
In fact the Tar Heels have done that twice. On the road. On a day when the Sun Belt woke up and chose violence, it makes Carolina’s 2-0 record on the road against App State and Georgia State that more impressive, even if it was kinda ugly in how they got there.
While Mack Brown probably wouldn’t have created this schedule — this is a remnant of Larry Fedora — you can’t question that it’s provided the Tar Heels with some needed momentum before they begin their final quest through the Coastal. As they stare down the road at contests against Notre Dame, Wake, Pitt, Miami, and State, they know they have already been through the fire and will have experience to draw on when things get tight. It’s about all you can ask for, really.
Though it’d be nice if the defense had played better.
Our list of the winners and losers will look different this week, and that’s a good thing, as it’s possible this game is going to pay dividends down the road for the only 3-0 team in college football. Let’s dive in:
Power Echols: Our player of the game for Saturday leads the list. It’s more than his ten tackles that was second most on the team, it was a much bigger thing that may be the fork in the road we all look back on for the defense:
After Ga. State staged a 25-0 run on Carolina, @PowerEchols (23) pulled the entire defense around him and delivered an impassioned talk that he concluded, “We will STILL win this football game.” Indeed, defense forced 4 straight punts & Tar Heels survived, 35-28. pic.twitter.com/zqaSWDvdJu— Lee Pace (@LeePaceTweet) September 10, 2022
The defense has been beset by a ton of issues, but perhaps one of the biggest ones was someone on defense stepping up and taking control. Over the last couple of seasons, even as poor as it had been at times, it felt like the Tar Heels had someone would take a moment, step up, and be the guy who folks would rally around. Maybe it was Chazz Surratt, Tomon Fox, or others, but no one had stood up to be the leader on defense yet. It’s easy to understand why Echols would be hesitant to do so, he’s only a sophomore and there are more upperclassmen on the team. So when he saw chaos on the sideline, stood up, and said “we are going to win this game” it seemed to be just the spark they needed. Want proof?
So, time to silver lining the s*** out of this again.— Al Hood (@albhood) September 10, 2022
Defense held GSU to 3 points till late in the second quarter, then regressed again, but after letting them go on a run…held. Really held pic.twitter.com/g9ykHSG5Gw
Four drives, all ended in punts. One of those drives started with a sudden change at perhaps the worst possible time and unlike last weekend, they not only held, they pushed Georgia State BACK a yard. We’ll see if this is the turning point the defense needed, but either way, Power deserves a ton of praise for stepping up when it was desperately needed.
Cedrick Gray: What is this, two guys on defense getting shout outs? Cedrick deserves this also, as he lead the team with 14 tackles and with his partner Echols did a great job of containing Georgia State Quarterback Darren Grainger. Gray had 11 solo tackles, and came right back out on the field despite being hobbled during the game. Grainger managed to pop a few good runs, but by the end of the game his moves had been sniffed out and he just couldn’t create the way he wanted to.
Omarion Hampton: This isn’t for his special teams play, that’s for sure. His boneheaded catch of a kickoff at the two instead of letting it go out of bounds or into the end zone cost the Tar Heels twenty to thirty yards, and resulted in a punt because options were limited. No, he’s here because the freshman recovered to be the sure-handed back the Tar Heels needed late, and managed to tie the game when it seemed like all of the momentum was on the side of the Panthers:
OMARION HAMPTON TO THE HOUSE!— 247Sports (@247Sports) September 10, 2022
UNC strikes back to tie it against Georgia State
And then when it was time to put the Tar Heels up for good, he showed he could be good in short yardage as well:
The performance was important with Caleb Hood out, as it shows the Tar Heels are still deep at the position. The freshman already has five touchdowns on the season, and he’s showing why he was the third ranked running back in the 2022 class last season. He just needs to work on that kickoff return, but considering the result we can give him a pass.
Secondary: A week after Darren Grainger went 7-29 for 111 yards and an interception against South Carolina, he popped off for three touchdowns and 186 yards on 16-24 passing. Oh, and he wasn’t picked off. It’s the third week in a row that a quarterback has been able to knife up this secondary, and it’s fair to wonder at this point if every quarterback in the league can prepare to have a great day when they see these guys on their schedule. Perhaps no play showed off just how badly this group has played than this one:
Not only was this completed amongst four Tar Heels with a severely under thrown ball, no one appeared to want to actually STOP Robert Lewis once the play was made. It does become a question of the chicken or the egg with the secondary: if the defensive front can’t contain or get pressure on the quarterback, does it make the secondary weaker?
That said, one bright spot at the end of the game was Tony Grimes. If you take a look at the drive chart for the end of the game, his name pops up a lot as someone doing a pass breakup or completing the tackle to minimize the pass catching damage. He was the only member of the secondary credited with pass breakups (2), as well as the only player on defense with a forced fumble. One guy does not a secondary make, though. Better quarterbacks are going to carve this team up unless some massive improvement happens over the off week.
Drake Maye: Look the tongue is firmly in my cheek here, as his “worst” day of the three is still something most quarterbacks would salivate over. The quarterback was 19-24 for 284 yards and two touchdowns. But, most of that damage was done in the first half, and he had his first real rough stretch after the Tar Heels managed to get their 21-3 lead. He started feeling the pressure of the offensive line not protecting him, and started forcing plays as he felt like the defense wasn’t going to back him up. He also had his first interception on the season on a pretty bad pass that came as Georgia State was charging back up to eventually take the lead. There was never any danger of Maye being pulled, and his running game helped settle things down in the second half, but it was perhaps the first real bad stretch from the redshirt freshman. He’ll now have a couple of weeks to watch tape and learn, as he is about to face his biggest test in Notre Dame.
D.J. Jones: If Hampton’s kickoff mistake can be passed off as a freshman doing freshman things in his third game ever, there’s really no excuse for a junior battling for playing time failing to secure the ball late when you know the opponent is going to do everything they can to strip it from you. Jones saw more action thanks to the absence of Caleb Hood, and was used more for running as opposed to just being a pass catching back. His fumble wasted a wonderful 21 yard rush to midfield that might have sealed the game. All the credit in the world to the defense for handling the challenge well and pushing Georgia State back a yard in three plays and forcing the Panthers to punt. If Hood is healthy for Notre Dame, a mistake like that could cost Jones some serious playing time.
Kobe Paysour has been an on a tear since having to step up for the missing Josh Downs. He’s had 13 catches for 165 yards and two touchdowns and has shown himself to be a real weapon that defenses will have to contend with whenever Downs does come back...Ben Kiernan had his busiest day of the season with five kicks, all well placed and one that got a great bounce to be rated at 70 yards. You hope to never see him, but it means so much to have a steady presence like that when you need him...for as great as Sam Howell was, guys like Kamari Morales must be thrilled to have someone taller like Maye under center, in three games he already has 155 yards receiving including a 55 yard TD pass from Maye to open up the scoring on Saturday. He had 210 yards in 13 games last season, so he’s likely going to eclipse that mark quickly. Having Tight Ends as part of the offense might also solve the red zone woes of Phil Longo,
And with that, everyone enjoy next weekend. An off week in September is rare, and it’s a great chance to just enjoy the rest of the college landscape while the team gets ready for their next test against Notre Dame. Granted, the game has lost a little luster thanks to Marshall, but the atmosphere in Kenan should still be electric.