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UNC vs. West Virginia: Three Things Learned

When most of your team has opted out, there’s not a lot to take from a lackluster effort, but let’s try.

NCAA Football: Duke’s Mayo Bowl-North Carolina at West Virginia Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Wednesday night was a little bit about the past, a little bit about the future, and a lot about mayonnaise.

I love the stuff, personally. When you live in New England for twelve years and don’t have access to the title sponsor of this particular bowl game, you find ways to bring it in. There’s currently a 48oz jar of it sitting in my fridge, and if you want a little slice of heaving, paring that on a sandwich with some pimento cheese is heaven. I don’t know if I’d do any of the combos with mayo that they had on the broadcast last night, but put me in the “enjoys mayo camp.”

I’m mostly talking about mayo at this point because it was a lot more interesting than the game itself. If you watched it, you know what I mean. That said, there were some lessons for us in those four quarters so let’s check out three things learned in the lackluster effort.

Conner Harrell has a chance

The stats by Harrell, making his first career start, may not look great —1 8/27 for 199 yards, one touchdown and two picks — but despite what could be considered two backbreaking picks in the red zone, he still got back up to make plays and keep Carolina’s offense moving. The assignment was a tough one for Harrell with all of the opt outs and injuries. Both interceptions were throws to essentially the fifth string tight end, and considering some of the talent that the Tar Heels normally have at that position it’s hard to imagine those passes getting picked off in normal situations. He read plays relatively well, and was able to escape pressure more times than he had any reason to.

The hard thing about grading a game like last night’s for him is that he was playing under a person who hadn’t played center all season and behind a line that gave up seven sacks alone in that game. West Virginia worked to take out Carolina’s known weapon in Omarion Hampton, and mostly succeeded keeping him to 74 yards. Other things happened that put him behind the gun all night, but at the very least Harrell showed that going into the spring he’ll deserve a shot at being the starter as the Tar Heels start 2024 in Minneapolis.

Special teams need a complete reset

It’s easy to point at the defense as a reason why the Tar Heels have lagged this season, but aside from the embarrassing 75-yard first score touchdown, the defense wasn’t the primary reason the Tar Heels lost last night. A punt return touchdown, a turnover off a West Virginia punt, a kick catch interference, and a successful fake field goal all were.

Special teams have been a problem bubbling under the surface all season, and while you can blame a good chunk of the issues being due to a lot of new players getting their first snaps on the units, this level of ineptness just is inexcusable for any P5 program. Larry Porter may have proven he needs to be moved off the assignment once and for all after that performance. The success of the UNC running backs is hard to ignore, so you don’t want to lose Porter in that role — but it’s time to get him involved in other aspects of the offense and give special teams to someone else.

There is a real malaise around UNC football

The last couple of weeks have not been good in terms of the future of Carolina football. You had several opt outs, then Mack Brown’s puzzling choice to light into Dave Doeren three weeks after their embarrassing showing in Raleigh, then Brown’s flippant dismissal of fans who feel some sort of change needs to happen. This all led to a bowl game that, while only two hours from Chapel Hill and in a known UNC stronghold — just look at the attendance of the Jumpman Classic last week — was dominated by WVU fans.

There’s not one explanation for the lack of attendance by UNC fans — for me, personally, asking to fork over $200 before fees for sideline seats was a tall order — but that there are a lot of them just exemplifies how, for lack of a better word, meh the fan base is with the program right now. There’s frustration, sure, and a desire to see changes. The thing is that most fans seem to have just accepted that this is the same ole same ole for Carolina football, and if they can’t hit another level with two NFL-starting level quarterbacks, will it ever happen?

With the bowl game over, we’ll see what changes Mack has in store for the staff. It seems clear at this point something will happen, the question is: will it matter?