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UNC vs. UVA: X-Factor

Warranted or not, the Heels have to clean up the penalties.

NCAA Football: Miami at North Carolina Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

North Carolina Tar Heels head coach Mack Brown addressed the original X-Factor for this weekend’s game versus Virginia.

In his weekly press conference, Brown provided an anecdote from his 2005 season in Texas when an undefeated Longhorns team was facing a 4-7 Texas A&M team.

I was at Texas, and we’d just beaten Kansas 66 to 14. We were undefeated, and we’re second in the country, and this was 2005, and we’re getting ready to go play A&M, and they’re 4-7, and we’re going to play at A&M. I get a call from coach Parcells, he’s the head coach of the Cowboys, and I had played for him at Florida State. He’s a dear friend, and I admired him so much. And he didn’t say hello. He said, “You’re in trouble man.” I’m thinking, we just won 66-14, we’re doing good, man. And he said, “You’re in trouble because you’re sitting around talking about you and USC and the national championship game. This is Texas A&M’s bowl game. They’re not going to a bowl game, so their only chance to save their season is beating you.” He said, “You’re like the big rat that’s eating the poisoned cheese.” He said, “You’re going to die now. You’re going to eat the poisoned cheese and you’re going to die.” I mean, I got scared to death on the phone.

Syracuse seemed like the perfect trap game coming off a bye week, but this game is even more so.

The South’s Oldest Rivalry has produced close games in recent years. Since UNC won by 21 points in 2016, the average margin of victory in the last six games is just eight points.

Remove Carolina’s 20-point victory in 2021, and that margin shrinks to less than six points.

The Hoos snapped their eight-game losing streak two weekends ago versus William & Mary, and have been thinking about the Tar Heels for going on 10 days. The compete-level will be there for Virginia. Carolina cannot overlook that.

Rather than take the low-hanging fruit cheese, let’s focus on a factor from the Miami game that could have truly derailed UNC’s efforts: penalties. The Tar Heels were just two penalties short of the school record of 16.

Yes, some (most?) were bad, and there were certainly imbalances in how penalties were called (especially for holding). Similar to a baseball umpire’s strike zone on a given night, though, the players must adjust. If a certain infraction is being called a particular way in a game, it is the responsibility of the coaches to inform the players on how to make those adjustments.

It is not foolproof, but the team cannot be bullheaded about calls.

Here’s how Brown addressed that in his press conference:

There’s a fine line between correcting the mistakes and not making your team get too cautious and too soft. So, too many penalties, without question. We’ve got to improve that area. We haven’t had it until this game.

There is credit due to Miami for the pre-snap penalties, a product of Carolina trying to get the jump on the play, but penalties keep the opponents in the game. If you combine penalties and turnovers, those are the key ingredients for a major upset.

To reach the places UNC wishes to go, disciplined football is an absolute must. Let’s see how they correct these issues Saturday night.