North Carolina, despite a disastrous offensive display through three quarters, came oh so close to completing its third consecutive fourth quarter comeback of the season last night. It’s hard not to be irate at the way it ended (how can that second not be added on?!), it’s difficult not to be exasperated that it took another herculean effort at the end of the game, and it’s impossible not to be proud of the never-say-die attitude of this Tar Heel squad under Mack Brown.
Here is an attempt to make sense enough of Friday’s Jekyll-and-Hyde performance to issue deserving grades to the Heels.
Through three quarters, it appeared that Sam Howell’s carriage had turned back into a pumpkin. The true freshman, who was lauded all week as one of the best freshman players in the nation, got off to a horrid start. He missed throws, threw into double coverage, didn’t sense pressure, and he failed to throw the ball away on a number of occasions. He was sacked six times throughout the game. Before the half was done, he was on the sideline and Jace Ruder was inserted. Ruder, who is better with his legs than Howell, picked up UNC’s first 1st down of the game, then quickly saw his own drive stall out. When asked at halftime about the decision to pull Howell, Mack Brown kept it simple, “We didn’t get a first down.”
In the second half, Howell was put back in and responded like maybe .01% of true freshman quarterbacks could. He grew into the game, found his footing, completed clutch passes and strung together drives. His 55-yard pass to Dyami Brown woke up the UNC offense. He threw a dart to Brown for a TD and another to Garrett Walston for a 2-point conversion. To start the final drive, he DID have the sense to heave the ball away when the play was broken by zone coverage. It is early for any meaningful comparisons (and perhaps sacrilegious to bring up basketball in September) but thus far he reminds me of a 2014 Marcus Paige, the way he locks in down the stretch and seizes the game, regardless of how he has started it.
Running Back: C+
UNC’s stubborn attempt to establish the run game throughout was largely stymied by a stout Wake defense. However, the Heels corps, especially Michael Carter, made an impact late...too late, it turned out. It was a cruel twist of fate that earlier in the game, with both teams struggling to gain any yardage, Javonte Williams broke off a big run that ended in a fumble inside UNC’s own red zone. Wake scored two plays later and were off to the races for most of the first half.
It was an even crueler twist of fate that Michael Carter, whose 50-yard run in the fourth quarter lit up the Carolina crowd, would end the game with the ball in his hands, desperately signaling that there should be one second remaining on the clock. Make no mistake: Carter messed up by not either giving himself up or getting out of bounds more quickly, but he had been running hard and aggressively throughout the game and that mentality may have cost him at the end. He finished with 96 yards on thirteen carries, as well as a receiving touchdown. Williams added 27 yards on 9 carries.
UNC’s furious comeback effort was spurred largely by the play of Dazz Newsome and Dyami Brown, who flashed their playmaking ability in the second half, especially Brown, and help fight back into the game. The first (of many) positions on this list to be afflicted by the injury bug, UNC was missing receiver Antoine Green and starting tight end Carl Tucker for Friday’s matchup, and the lack of depth at the pass catcher showed at times. Early on, Howell was forced to dance in the pocket avoiding pressure while his targets struggled to get open. The reliance on the run was partly due to the total ineffectiveness of passing game: better one yard and cloud of dust and sacks and incompletions, no?
But as the game went on, things opened up: Brown’s 55-yard reception was the defibrillator for the offense, and Newsome had a couple big catches for first downs. Walston was the recipient of the 2-point conversion. As with much of the team, there was a lot to like on Friday night about the gamer mentality of the receiving corps.
Offensive Line: D
Oh boy...well, for starters, let’s understand that an awful lot of slack should be cut for these guys, who were given the nearly impossible task of protecting a freshman quarterback with three different injuries on the line. Starting center Nick Polino was out ahead of the game, while Charlie Heck and Jordan Tucker sustained injuries during the game. Brian Anderson was asked to step in for Polino and...it didn’t go well. His snaps were frequently low, he was whistled for several penalties, including an illegal snap, and he looked utterly lost throughout the game. Marcus McKethan and Walston had a horrible sequence on a screen play on 3rd and 15 in which they failed to block any defenders and ended with yet another failed third and long. McKethan also had a brutal holding penalty on a long run by Howell that wiped out a first down. As mentioned earlier, Howell was sacked six times and the run game was dead in the water through three quarters.
Chalk it all up to the injuries if you wish, but this was one of those “bury the ball” type games for the O-Line.
Defensive Line: C-
In a pregame gut-punch sustained by the Heels, defensive tackle Jason Strowbridge, perhaps the best player on the team, was a scratch right before kickoff due to an ankle injury. The sight of him in full uniform but unable to take the field was nauseating, especially as UNC repeatedly struggled to set the edge against Wake’s option runs. The Demon Deacons gashed UNC for 222 yards on the ground, despite missing their best ballcarrier Cade Carney. Whether it was Jamie Newman or Kenneth Walker, UNC didn’t have an answer for the run game throughout the first half.
However, the defense was able to string together eight consecutive drives without allowing a score, starting near the end of the second quarter and carrying all the way to Wake’s field goal in the 4th. Wake didn’t get as much joy running the ball as the game wore on, and UNC’s defense kept them in the game long enough for the offense to finally find its footing. Carolina managed just one sack for the game, but the option offense Wake runs is partly to thank for that.
For much of the last night, it looked like the lingering image of the game would be Jamie Newman bowling over Chazz Surratt his way to the end zone to such an extent that Surratt’s helmet went flying off. Disrespectful, and to a former quarterback at that! Allen Cater went down with a rib injury early and UNC’s LB corps struggled against the option throughout. An awful lot of missed tackles, particularly on Wake’s final possession, will be rued this morning. Tomon Fox had a particularly bad one. That said, they stepped up down the stretch, gang tackling Newman several times on must-have plays and getting the stops needed to make the game anything other than a laugher.
Tyrone Hopper, in relief of Cater, came up with what seemed a huge sack on the final drive but it was wiped out the following play by a long conversion to Scotty Washington. A scrappy effort down the stretch makes it hard not to wonder how things would have gone had they started the game that way.
So...turns out the Heels missed Patrice Rene at times. Go figure. Sage Surratt, who surely would’ve been Rene’s cover, abused both Trey Morrison and Greg Ross on numerous occasions and had himself quite a day, tallying 169 yards and a touchdown on nine receptions. He and Newman were dynamite through most of the night and it was hard to watch the 5’10” Morrison in particular try to deal with all 6’3” 215 pounds of Chazz’s little bro. Trey DID however make a big play on Surratt on third down with eight minutes left in the 4th, which led to a UNC score. Outside of Surratt, Wake receivers couldn’t get anything going until Scotty Washington had a big 27-yard catch on 2nd and 16 on their final drive. Other than that, Wake had just 23 receiving yards.
Myles Dorn had a mixed game, coming up with a few key tackles and the interception that triggered the comeback, but he also made several poor plays against the run, taking bad angles that resulted in missed tackles and gains for Walker. Myles Wolfolk was beaten horribly by Surratt on his long touchdown and fellow strong safety/nickel D.J. Ford had a tough night against the run. Overall, however, this newly limited unit was a massive question mark coming in and they performed fairly well, considering the circumstances. If this was the adjustment period, there is cause for optimism.
Special Teams: A+
If I’d told you that Special Teams would be our best unit on Friday night, I’m quite certain you’d have had me committed. Coming in there were big concerns regarding Ben Kiernan’s ability to boot the ball down the field. As Al noted in his Three to Watch, Kiernan was ranked 69th out of 70 among punters, but he had a terrific game (and got an awful lot of work), kicking 10 punts with an average of 46 yards. A couple of them were under pressure and he still managed to get them off with plenty of air under them. UNC’s kick coverage was terrific as well, giving up just one kick return of 23 yards and a combined 10 yards on punt returns. Noah Ruggles nailed his 49 yard attempt in the 3rd quarter as well. All around, a vastly improved performance from what had been UNC’s weakest unit coming into Winston-Salem.
Where to even start...on the one hand, a rash of injuries crippled the offense and put UNC behind the eight ball much of the game. On the other, once again Phil Longo focused too much on establishing the run (to little success) early and it was a big reason the Heels fell behind. Sam Howell and the offense in general seem to play their best when the hour is late and there’s no time to stop and think about overall game strategy. That’s not a good look for the offensive staff. Defensively, UNC walled up as the game went on, but the start against the option was inexcusable: UNC knew exactly how Wake was going to attack and still wasn’t ready. Yes, the comebacks are thrilling but you know what would be great? Not falling behind in every single game! This team still hasn’t put together 60 good minutes of football and that needs to change before they get properly embarrassed (need I remind you that Clemson is coming to town in two weeks?).
On the other hand, the morale of this team is a pleasure to behold. This team possesses an optimism and belief in itself that was been lacking for years and much (frankly, most) of that is due to the leadership of Mack Brown and his staff. Despite their horrendous start to the game, the team never hung their heads and seemed certain that they would finish the comeback off once it began. This was the ultimate “teachable” game for a football team: They made a plethora of mistakes, they were capable of winning, but they showed they have the ability and character to fight back. Mack will get a lot of lessons out of this one.