For the first time since 2005, the Tar Heels entered the final game of the season needing a win to get to a bowl game. After a sluggish start put the team down 10-6 at the half, Mack Brown’s crew would respond in a big way in the third quarter, scoring 28 of the teams 35 second half points in the quarter on the way to a 41-10 win over the NC State Wolfpack. Let’s take a look at what we learned in Saturday’s rivalry victory in Raleigh.
The In-State Struggles Might Finally Be Behind the Tar Heels
It wasn’t a promising start to the season in this category, but after dropping the first two in-state matchups of the season, the Tar Heels responded to beat the last two on their schedule. One of the biggest reasons that Larry Fedora was let go was because he couldn’t beat his two biggest rivals. In his first season back in Chapel Hill, Mack Brown and his guys ended three-year losing streaks to both of teams. While the two teams that you fell to are in-state opponents, neither has had the success of the other two on the recruiting trail in recent years, making these last two huge wins. After so many struggles against in-state teams in recent years, what better way to put those issues rest than by beating your two biggest rivals?
This Defense Has Been Through a Lot, But Will Fight Till the End
Injuries and lack of depth. Those are the two things that you hear about when people have discussed this 2019 Tar Heel defense. The good news is that the unit, despite having seen a lot of youth forced into major roles they weren’t quite prepared for and many stars having played at or above 1,000 snaps, has not stopped fighting. Saturday, they were rewarded with arguably their best performance of the season. After a quick start for the NC State running game on the opening two drives, the Tar Heels defense stood tall, holding the Wolfpack to just 289 of yards of total offense for the game, including just 49 yards rushing after the opening two drives. Against a struggling group of quarterbacks, Storm Duck and Trey Morrison looked the best they have all season and the Tar Heels pulled down three interceptions along the way. The defensive line stepped up to put together their best performance since the Duke game and the linebackers responded from their rough outing in the Pittsburgh game. Jay Bateman’s defense may not have been perfect this season, but Saturday's performance shows that once the depth is there, this defense has the potential to be a very strong unit under his direction.
Turnovers Can Be a Difference Maker
This headline may seem like a very obvious statement, but over the last few years, this Tar Heel team just hasn’t been able to force any turnovers. That was not the case on Saturday, however, as the Tar Heels forced the struggling Wolfpack offense into four turnovers, all of which came in the dominant second half for this Tar Heel defense. Don Chapman’s interception on the second defensive drive of the second half was what changed the course of the game, as the offense put together their first touchdown drive of the night and never looked back. The defense forced two more interceptions and a fumble, the first time since 2015 that the team has forced three interceptions in a game. Those four turnovers turned into 21 points for the offense, a huge help for an offense that was struggling early in the game. This defense is the main reason the Tar Heels won this game.
Just When You Think He Can’t Impress Anymore Than He Has, Howell Does
It seems every week we are talking about another amazing feat for Sam Howell and this week is no different. Howell threw for a career high 401 yards on 23-33 passing and found the end zone three more times on Saturday night. Those three touchdowns now place him fourth all-time in ACC history with 35 passing touchdowns in a season trailing only Deshaun Watson (41), Jameis Winston (40) and Tajh Boyd (36), the latter of which he’ll have a chance to tie and pass in the bowl game. His 12.2 yards per completion is his sixth straight game with at least 10.0 yards per completion, as he continues to thrive in deep passing situations. Howell is already one of the most decorated quarterbacks in program history and his freshman season isn’t even complete yet. Expect to see Howell’s name a lot more over these next couple of years, not only in local media outlets, but in national publications, as well.
Grandpa Can Coach, Too
When Mack Brown was hired last November, Dave Doeren called him “Grandpa Mack” as a joke, questioning, just as many national analysts were, if Mack still had it in him to get the job done. Not only did Mack come in and start demolishing Doeren on the recruiting trail, he’s now backing it up on the field by not just beating him, but doing it handedly. In his first year back on campus, Mack has completely changed the direction and perception around this Tar Heel football program and has this team back in a bowl game. Not bad for Ol’ Grandpa Mack, huh, Dave?