So what exactly is this 2019 Tar Heel football team? That is the question that many are left asking after the Tar Heels dropped Saturday’s game at home against non-Power 5 Appalachian State 34-31. This Tar Heel team is back to .500 and while they have wins over South Carolina and Miami, the loss to Apppalachian State pretty much puts us back where we were at the beginning of the season. Let’s see what we learned about the Tar Heels during Saturday afternoon’s loss to Appalachian State.
This Defense is Back to Being a Problem for the Tar Heels
After some signs of improvement in the opener against South Carolina, the defense has been on a steady downward trend towards Saturday’s performance. While the Tar Heels run defense has shown signs of improvement, the momentary lapses, such as the one on Appalachian State’s 3rd down conversion late in the fourth quarter that would have given the offense more time to work with, still are concerning. The bigger concern, though, has been the slow deterioration of the pass defense. Injuries have been a big contributor, especially in the secondary, but veterans like Myles Dorn and D.J. Ford have also really struggled in coverage situations as the season has progressed. The issues on the back end haven’t allowed Jay Bateman to be as aggressive as he would like to be in terms of exotic looks and blitzes. The defensive line has struggled to get to the quarterback in each of the past two weeks and with the lack of blitzes from the linebackers and defensive backs, the two opposing quarterbacks been able to move the ball with ease. It seems like a simple recipe for the Tar Heels: just get healthy. As we’ve seen over the last few years, however, that task is easier said than done. The more likely solution is for this offense will need to become the juggernaut that we thought they would have to be during the preseason.
The Offensive Play-Calling Still Gives You Those Head Scratching Moments
When Larry Fedora left back in November, many fans were hoping that some of the mind-boggling offensive play calls would leave with him. Phil Longo continued to show on Saturday that there will still be some of those moments. Don’t get me wrong, the play-calling doesn’t involve any screen plays from your own 1-yard line, but there were plays today that once again left you scratching your head and asking why. It started on the first drive of the game when the Tar Heels pulled quarterback Sam Howell off the field to run a very predictable quarterback draw out of an empty backfield with Jace Ruder. The conservative play calls when in the red zone have also been frustrating, such as the one on the Tar Heels second scoring drive where they chose to run the ball on 3rd & 6 and settle for the field goal instead looking to move the chains and try to punch it into the endzone. The offensive play-calling has gotten better this season, but the question is how much better actually is it?
This Offensive Line is Really Struggling
No other unit on this team is as beat up as this Tar Heel offensive line is right now. Offensive tackle Charlie Heck, the anchor of the offensive line, missed the game due to injury, forcing redshirt freshman Joshua Ezeudu into action. That left the Tar Heels without a single starter that had started more than one game prior to this season, with senior Nick Polino still out with a lower body injury. While the offensive line wasn’t awful today, it struggled to protect Howell for the second straight week and, to this point in the season, has allowed 16 sacks, six more than the ten they allowed in 11 games a year ago. It’s unfortunate that most of the players are having to learn on the fly, but with all the injuries, the unit will just have to adjust to avoid the drive-killing negative plays that have hurt them so much.
Sam Howell is Human
Howell entered the game with some select Tar Heel fans saying that the team may hold the quarterback advantage in next week’s game against Clemson. Those people were proven wrong on Saturday. Howell threw his first two interceptions of the season and lost a fumble, resulting in 14 points off of turnovers for Appalachian State. Don’t get me wrong; Howell still put together a solid performance, throwing for 323 yards, three touchdowns and adding a rushing touchdown, but for the second straight game, he had moments where he looked like a freshman. Howell has to work on going through his progressions a little quicker than he has early in the season and needs to protect the football better when he tucks to run, but there is still plenty of time for him to grow, even during this 2019 season.
This Team is Still a Giant Question Mark
If you would have told me back in the preseason that at this point in the season that this team would be 2-2, I would have told you I’ll take it. The Tar Heels brutal early season schedule was one that was meant to provide challenges, but I don’t think many saw this team beating South Carolina and Miami and losing to Appalachian State. The good news is, at 2-2, this team is still in position to make a bowl game, something many thought the Tar Heels would struggle to get to before the season started. The team also remains 1-0 in conference play, but the confidence that this team could make noise in the Coastal has definitely taken a blow over the past two weeks. Still, the rest of the ACC Coastal is a mess outside of Virginia, who struggled today against Old Dominion and the Tar Heels already have a win over one of the other preseason favorites. If the Tar Heels can find a way to right the ship within the next two weeks, they still have a chance to have a very solid first season of Mack Brown’s second tenure.