Last night presented the Tar Heels with a chance to wipe away some of the disappointment from a three game losing streak that sent this team spiraling from 9-1 to 9-4 as they faced the Oregon Ducks in the Holiday Bowl in San Diego. For the better part of three and a half quarters, it looked like it was going to be a chance to exorcise some of those demons, as the Tar Heels methodically moved the football on offense for the first time in weeks and held one of the nation’s best offenses in check on the way to a 24-14 lead. All of that positivity, though, was wiped away thanks to fourteen points from the Ducks in the final 6:58 of the game, as they scored a touchdown with 19 seconds to go and banked in the extra point to pull out a 28-27 win. Here are our biggest takeaway from yet another heartbreaking loss for this 2022 Tar Heel team.
Defensive Pass Interference Penalty on Lejond Cavazos Changed the Game
The Tar Heel defense had allowed just 60 total yards in the second half to the Ducks at the midway point of the 4th quarter, but the pass interference penalty on Lejond Cavazos completely shifted the momentum of this game. Following that penalty, the Tar Heels allowed 119 yards of offense to the Ducks on 12 plays, 97 of which came through the air. That collapse was just another example of the issues that this team has had on the defensive side of the football when it has come to moving on from mistakes, something tha’s plagued them this entire season. It’s a sign of a culture and mentality problem, primarily on the defensive side of the football, which has to be eradicated moving forward for this program to have any chance of taking another step in the right direction.
Red Zone Execution Problems Rear Their Ugly Head Again
Wednesday night was the best that the Tar Heel offense has looked since the Wake Forest game, despite finishing the game with just 322 yards. The team moved the ball methodically inside of the 20s for the majority of the night, leading to their most points in regulation since that trip to Winston-Salem. The problems offensively laid in the red zone once again, where the team converted just two of their four trips into touchdowns. In the end, missing the field goal early in the second quarter and having to settle for a 10-point lead instead of a 14-point lead early in the fourth quarter was the difference. Red zone execution had been enough of an issue for this team under Phil Longo in the past four seasons, but it peaked at the end of this year with the team converting just seven of their final 21 attempts into touchdowns. This game was a step in the right direction for this offense overall, but in order for the unit to return to the level of success that it had earlier in the season next year, they simply have to be able to put the ball in the endzone at a more consistent rate.
Wide Receiving Corps Is In Good Shape For Next Season
We knew heading into the day that the Tar Heels would be without star receiver Josh Downs, but the news that Antoine Green would not play unless absolutely necessary came as a bit of a shock. That opened the door, though, for the Tar Heels to get an early look at some of the members of next year’s receiving corps and the results should provide plenty of confidence about the room heading into next year. Kobe Paysour was outstanding once again, catching a team-high seven passes for 98 yards and a touchdown on eleven targets. Andre Greene Jr., who was able to play because of the ruling from the NCAA that allowed players to keep their redshirt if the bowl game was going to be their fifth game of the season, also had a nice night for himself. He hauled in all three of his targets for 26 yards and an impressive touchdown grab on a jump ball that opened the scoring. Both of them proved that they are capable of stepping up and being a factor next season and with the additions of Kent State transfer Devontez Walker and Georgia Tech transfer Nate McCollum, there shouldn’t be a ton of
concern about a major regression from this unit next season.
Trio of True Freshmen Provide Hope on the Defensive Side of the Ball
There was a lot to be disappointed with about the Tar Heels finish to the game defensively, but this was one of the best performances of the season on that side of the ball. The linebacker duo of Cedric Gray and Power Echols was fantastic once again, but this time they were joined by some strong performances from a trio of first year players. Marcus Allen and Will Hardy started for the team in the secondary again and had nice nights in coverage, allowing a combined 41 yards on five receptions. Allen also involved himself in the run games, finishing tied for the team lead in total tackles with eight. Meanwhile, up front defensive tackle Travis Shaw was flying to the football all night, finishing with four total tackles, the most amongst the team’s defensive linemen. There are still plenty of issues that have to be worked out on this side of the ball, but there is at least some hope with a few of the young guys on this roster.
Multiple Staff Changes Simply Have to Be Made
As I said above, this is a program that has a culture problem that has to be solved to have any chances of moving forward. To do that, they need to make changes to this coaching staff. The mindset around this team, mainly on the defensive side of the football, is a fragile one that has been developed under this coaching staff, which has mostly remained intact since Mack Brown’s return. Those mentality issues are coupled with a lack of development that this at select position groups, headlined by the defensive line and secondary. This season was a step in the right direction after last year’s debacle, but it feels like there are tough decisions that need to be made to take avoid some major setbacks in the near future.
The Direction of This Program is Still in Question
When this team was 9-1 back in mid-November it felt like it was clear that the program’s momentum was once again heading upward after a setback in 2021. Just a month and half later, this program sits here with major questions about the future, including about the time that Brown has left on the Tar Heel sidelines. The Tar Heels became the first team in the history of college football to win nine games and lose four straight games in a season, bringing about memories of the 2016 season where the team had a similar end to the season. There is absolutely no way that this staff can let things go in a similar direction to what transpired at the end of the Larry Fedora era. Winning nine games for just the second time since Brown’s departure back in 1997 and an appearance in the ACC Championship Game is an accomplishment, but there will be a lot pressure around him and his staff heading into next season to right the ship once again after this dejecting four game losing streak.