Saturday was billed a trap game and the Tar Heels fell into the trap, undercutting what had a chance to be a special season. After racing out to a 17-0 lead in the first half highlighted by a touchdown on the first play of the game, things came crashing down, as the Tar Heels allowed 21 straight points to a beat up Georgia Tech team. Here is a look at our biggest takeaways from a second consecutive stomach-turning loss to the Yellow Jackets.
Uncharacteristic Mistakes Led Directly to Loss
The Tar Heels were one of the best teams in the country at home in the first three seasons under Mack Brown, but on Saturday night, it was a house of horrors. A Tar Heel offense that had been as consistent as any in college football looked out of sorts the entire night, failing to score a single point in the second half, the first time since the first half of last year’s season opener against Virginia Tech that they failed to score in a half. One element of the Tar Heel offense that had been so reliable was the execution red zone, but the team was simply inept there in this one, converting just two of their five trips inside the 20 into points. Drake Maye, who has done an outstanding job of taking care of the football this season, threw his worst pick of the season on one of those three failed red zone trips, ending a very promising drive prior to that. Star wide receiver Josh Downs had a chance to catch the potential game-winning touchdown that could have salvaged it all, but couldn’t hold on to a perfect pass from Maye on 4th and 11. A Tar Heel defense that came up with the big stops when they needed to in the 4th quarter all season long could not get off the field despite three separate third down opportunities. This is a script that even Hollywood's best writers couldn’t have come up with based on what this team had shown us this year.
Two Questionable Referee Decisions Aided in Loss
It’s hard to place too much of the blame on the refs because the Tar Heels should not have even been in a close game, but they were certainly part of the recipe in Saturday’s loss. Prior to the 4th down drop from Downs, the refs missed an obvious pass interference penalty on a pass intended for D.J. Jones that would have set the Tar Heels up with a 1st & Goal situation with the chance to take the lead. While that one was bad enough, the holding call on the second touchdown run by Elijah Green in the middle of the third quarter was the one that really changed things. Bryson Nesbit was called for late holding on a play where he was being pancaked into the ground by a defender, eliminating the 68-yard touchdown run and setting the table for the loss. Mack Brown was fired up about that call in particular in the postgame and considering that it is one of the worst penalty calls that I’ve seen in all my years of watching football, who could blame him?
Drake Maye’s Heisman Chances Are Pretty Much Tarnished
Maye’s performance on Saturday night may have been the most shocking of any since Mack Brown’s return to Chapel Hill. The redshirt freshman, who had all of college football buzzing throughout the last couple of weeks, never looked comfortable and missed some throws that he will want to have back. He finished with just 215 yards of total offense, easily the fewest of the season, and failed to score a touchdown for the first time in a game this year. Unfortunately, Maye's hopes of even making it to New York were probably dashed in this one because of just how thin the margin of error was and the fact that this performance took place against a team that will almost certainly finish the year 5-7.
Offensive Line Falls Apart at the Wrong Time
One of the biggest reasons that Maye never was able to settle into a rhythm was because he wasn’t afforded a chance to by his offensive line. A unit that had shown some cracks over the past few weeks completely crumbled on Saturday night, resembling the line that cause so many issues for the team year ago. The group allowed six sacks and twelve tackles for loss, easily the most in each of those respective categories in a game this season. The right side of the unit had another rough performance and that was coupled with another off night for the anchor of the unit, Asim Richards. This unit has undoubtedly made strides from where they were a year ago, but this group appears to be wearing down late in the season and on Saturday their struggles cost the team dearly.
Defense Played Better, But Couldn’t Make the Stops When Needed
It’s hard to really be that angry at the way that this defense played for the majority of this game, but when they needed stops, they simply could not get them. It started with the drive late in the first half where the Tar Heels couldn’t get off the field on 3rd & 3 after calling a timeout to try to get the ball back before halftime. Communication breakdowns followed, leading to a late Yellow Jackets touchdown that cut the lead to ten before halftime and gave them life and momentum. In the 4th quarter, one where the defense has shined, they allowed the game-winning drive early on before allowing two huge third down conversions on the final drive of the game, including allowing a 3rd & 9 to be converted on the ground.