For just the second time since 2011, the Tar Heels are 3-0 to start a season. It certainly wasn’t pretty for the Tar Heels to get there on Saturday in Atlanta, though, against Georgia State. Despite taking the early 21-3 lead, they trailed 28-21 late in the third quarter before scoring 14 straight points to help avoid the upset. Here is a look at the biggest takeaways from the second consecutive nail-bitting win on the road over a Sun Belt foe.
Offense Survives Sloppy Performance
The Tar Heel offense had more moments of brilliance in this game, especially early on, but this was by far their sloppiest performance of the season. They started relatively well, scoring on three of their first five possessions of the game. However, following an impressive throw and catch from Drake Maye to Kobe Paysour to extend the lead to 18, a switch seemed to flip, as the team failed to score on each of the next six drives. Omarion Hampton’s 58-yard touchdown run and John Copenhaver’s 47-yard reception on the following possession sparked two scoring drives that were the difference in the game and saved this from a complete disaster. After taking care of the football extremely well in the first two games of the season, the Tar Heels turned the ball over three times on Saturday, which prevented the team from being able to pull away. Mack Brown said on Wednesday that he was concerned about what he had seen from his offense in practice throughout the week after two outstanding performances and we saw why. Hopefully this will be a humbling experience that can get this group refocused over the bye week with Notre Dame looming on the other side.
Defenses Bows Up When They Need To
This defense was far from perfect once again on Saturday, but when they needed to step up and make plays late, they did. Following the touchdown that gave the Panthers a 28-21 lead, the defense forced four straight punts, including back to back three and outs on Georgia State's final two possessions of the game. The unit also did a nice job following the three turnovers and one turnover on downs inside of their own territory, holding the Panthers to just three points on those four drives. There is still a lot of work to do, but unlike a week ago, this group played big when they had to and was the reason this team was able to head back to Chapel Hill with a win.
Defensive Line The Biggest Issue For This Defense
Don’t get me wrong, the secondary has had a brutal start to the season as well and had more issues on Saturday, but this defensive line was the unit that struggled the most once again. The group was pushed around all day, allowing 235 rushing yards to the Panthers and failing to get any real pressure on quarterback Darren Grainger throughout the afternoon. The biggest issue for this team has been on the interior of this unit where they have simply been bullied and the trio of Myles Murphy, Kevin Hester Jr. and Raymond Vohasek struggled to get off blocks and make plays for a third straight week. This unit was the one that Tar Heels fans may have been most excited about this offseason, but as we sit here following the third game, it is the unit that has had the least success on the team.
Kaimon Rucker and Noah Taylor Deserve Praise for Stepping Up
While the defensive front has been rough as a whole, Rucker and Taylor both deserve some praise for how they played on Saturday. The two, who combined for the stop on the final 2-point attempt last weekend in Boone, both had nice days and provided just enough to help pull out the victory. Taylor had five total tackles, including four solo tackles and was one of the few players that was able to provide any sort of pressure on the quarterback, leading the Tar Heels with 1.5 sacks. Rucker once again made the most of his snaps, finishing with six total tackles, including 1.5 for a loss and making a couple of timely plays for the defense once again. Neither of these guys have been perfect this season, but these guys are reason for hope with this defense.
3-0 is Nothing to Scoff At
These last two wins have been a bit ugly, especially with them coming against Non-Power 5 opponents. However, both of these wins did come on the road against two Sun Belt opponents who have proven themselves to be thornes in the sides of Power 5 teams over the past few years. The victory today gives the Tar Heels their first wins on the road in consecutive weeks since 2016, something that will be important for this team to do in ACC play with two stretches of back-to-back road games laying ahead on the schedule. The win also gives the Tar Heels their second 3-0 start since the 2011 season, the other being coming in the 2020 season where the team played in the Orange Bowl and would have gone to the ACC Championship Game if Notre Dame hadn’t been a part of the conference. There are a lot of things for this team to clean up in the bye week, but the goal was for this team to be 3-0 heading into the Notre Dame game and that will now be the case two Saturdays from now.