The Tar Heels opened their home slate for the 2021 season on Saturday night and while the scoreboard may have suggested an easy win for the Tar Heels, that wasn’t exactly the case. The Tar Heels pulled away for 59-17 victory, but there was a time early in the second half where the team just couldn’t create separation on the scoreboard. Sam Howell put the team on his back, though, leading the way for the Tar Heels as they put up 35 points in the final two quarters to pull away. Here are the takeaways from Saturday night’s victory in Kenan Stadium.
Still Some Big Question Marks in the Trenches
The offensive line wasn’t the only group in the trenches that struggled on Saturday. The Tar Heel defensive line was pushed around again early on in this one before recovering to have a strong finish to the night. The group must be able to get off to a faster start and win 1-on-1 matchup more consistently next week against a Virginia offense that is off to a strong start this season. The most disappointing unit for the entire team once again on Saturday was the offensive line that struggled to win against the Georgia State defensive front, which is not a good sign with the team heading back into ACC play next weekend. They weren’t nearly as bad as they were a week ago in pass protection, but they couldn’t create any push up front for this Tar Heel run game. For the second straight week, the team was without one of their top offensive lineman, but this team simply must do a better job of winning their matchups going forward if they want to get to Charlotte.
Secondary Injuries Starting to Amass Already
It feels like this is just a yearly tradition with the Tar Heels and that tradition continued on Saturday night. Ja’Quirous Conley hurt his left hand early in the second quarter forcing him to come out of the game and get a cast put on his hand. The good news was that he did return to the game, but one has to wonder how much the sophomore standout will be able to play over the next couple of weeks. In the third quarter, Dae Dae Hollins, who had seen a solid amount of rotational reps in the first two games of the season went down with a lower body injury. With Storm Duck still being worked back in very slowly so far, this corner room that was expected to be one of the deepest in the ACC is now looking a little thin for yet another matchup with Virginia.
Pass Catchers Looked Much More Confident
This probably something that should have been expected, but this is exactly what this group needed after a rough showing in Blacksburg a week ago. There were still some moments where they couldn’t create separation, but they showed a lot of promise when they got that space. They did a much better job of catching the contested passes and also did a much better job as a group of catching the football overall. The unit is still a work in progress, but this was a step in the right direction for this group.
Young Linebackers Need More Playing Time
The Tar Heels have rotated much more out of the gate than they did a year ago, but in the fourth quarter of this game, we got a glimpse of the future at linebacker. Both Power Echols and RaRa Dillworth looked tremendous in their limited reps late in the game, I’ll be it against the second team for Georgia State. Still, these young guys showed that they are special players and should be pushing for some rotational reps as the season goes along.
This Team Will Go as Sam Howell Goes
It may feel like an obvious statement but it has become clear early in the season that this team’s success, especially on offense, will lie almost completely on Howell’s shoulders. He had a huge performance on Saturday night, throwing for 352 yards and three touchdowns while also adding 104 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns, becoming just the second Tar Heel ever to throw for 300+ yards and run for 100+ yards in the game. Howell accounted for 75.1% of the Tar Heels offensive production and with the team’s struggles to run the football, there could be more of the same over the next couple of weeks. The Tar Heels will likely need him to put this team on his back once again next weekend in Kenan against Virginia, something that, luckily, he hasn’t had much trouble doing in his two meetings with the Cavaliers.