If you’re finally getting over Saturday night, look away. If you have already seen the offensive analysis, proceed cautiously because these rulings are also unpleasant. For once, superstar Drake Maye and his supporting cast didn’t steal the show. The complimenting pieces of the team struggled to pick up that slack. The performances of the special teams and coaches may have been the largest scapegoat in North Carolina’s historic disappointment on Saturday night. Here are some letter grades to try and classify what went wrong against Virginia in these two departments.
Special Teams: D+
Missing starting punter Ben Kiernan once again loomed large for the Tar Heels, as backup punters Tom Maginness and Cole Maynard punted six times for an average of 33.7 yards. The inability of the special teams unit to flip the field gave UVA three drives that started across the 50-yard line. These drives ended in a touchdown, field goal, and goal-line interception. The punts were atrocious, but the most frustrating part of this equation is that Virginia’s least efficient drives came when they had to go the total field. Part of this blame can be put on the offense for not advancing the ball, but the truth is, when you do not have a single punt all night that goes over 40 yards, why even punt the ball?
Amongst numerous things that stuck out on Saturday, this is a serious issue that needs to be addressed. It made a consequential impact on the result, and there is no reason to believe it won’t happen again. For a defense that is struggling, the gift of a short field to work with was a recipe for disaster. Virginia realized it and took advantage of it, quite the opposite of what the special teams and UNC as a whole did on Saturday night.
The only reason this grade is not an F is thanks to Noah Burnette’s perfect evening kicking. He netted two field goals and three extra points with no sweat. Quietly, Burnette has not missed a kick all year, as he is 11/11 on FG’s and 21/21 on XP’s. Impressive.
For a coaching staff that had received so much praise up to this point, this was an all-time letdown and disappointment across the board. Where do you even begin? First off, the “do not eat the cheese” narrative that Mack Brown preached all week allows this historic dud to be even more laughable and inconceivable. North Carolina went out and threw the football nearly 50 times against a bottom-third run defense in the entire country. When holding a three-point lead in the third quarter, Chip Lindsey and the offense dialed up a pass, pass, pass drive that resulted in 1:54 coming off the clock and -8 yards. Omarion Hampton saw five second-half touches after a dominant first half. And that’s just a few examples.
Some of these numbers and sequences are so ludicrous that you wonder how North Carolina only lost by 4. The truth in these coaching decisions is that the staff thought there was no way UVA could come out and hang with the Tar Heels. Dialing up deep shots and low percentage throws when trailing or narrowly leading is because somehow, someway, Mack Brown and company did not practice what they preached all week long. They fell for the bait and came out way too confident and stubborn. So much so that when the wheels were falling off, the game plan seemed to remain intact.
Don’t worry, I am not letting DC Gene Chizik off the hook either. A subpar Virginia offensive attack dominated the defense from start to finish. The defensive front was soft and struggled to create TFL’s. When they went to the air, there was not much contest (besides the INT) on the receivers. To top it all off, the tackling in the second level was atrocious, and many medium gains became chunk plays or, sometimes, touchdowns.
The defense struggled physically, but they also looked lost when Virginia continued to run their option-style offense. Something that has been an Achilles’ heel in the past makes its return, and Gene Chizik seemed to have no way to contain it. Also, I want to point out that if it was not for the two goal-line turnovers, Virginia could have (and should have) scored 45 points. That would have been the most against an FBS opponent since... against the Tar Heels in 2021. Sigh.
From a game plan, game management, and game preparation aspect, this was a failing performance from all parts of the puzzle. With the strides the staff has made and the commitment to avoiding this very thing from happening, the fact that it did just shocks me to no end. Great coaching has to win games just as much as a great quarterback would, and it seemed as if the staff was not prepared to answer that bell on Saturday night when the Heels needed it most.