Sickening. Disgusting. Unfathomable. Unimaginable. All adjectives that could describe the loss to NC State Wolfpack that the Tar Heels suffered on Friday night. Following a Grayson Atkins field goal with 2:12 to go in the game, the Tar Heels led 30-21, seemingly putting themselves in position to get their first road win of the seasonl. Instead, the Tar Heels closed out a winless season on the road with one of the most unexplainable losses in program history after allowing the Wolfpack to reel off 14 points in less than 30 seconds to retake the lead and win the game. Here are our biggest takeaways from a game that mercifully puts an end to this disappointing regular season.
This Might Be the Most Disappointing Season in Program History
This is something that has seemed to be debated a lot as the season has gone along, but after Friday night's loss and with the fashion in which it happened, it’s hard not to feel this way. This was a preseason top ten team to begin the season who came into the season with expectations of making their second straight NY6 bowl game, especially if Clemson had lived up to what many thought they could have been this season. Instead, in a year where Clemson left the door open in the conference, which should have favored you more than any other team in the country, you finish 6-6 and fail to win a single game on the road this season, building upon the struggles on the road that you had had in the first two seasons of Mack Brown 2.0. Worst of all: you wasted what will likely be the final year of the Sam Howell era.
Lack of Consistent Safety Play Grows More Concerning
The secondary for the most part didn’t have a bad night on Friday against an NC State passing game that came in as one of the most productive passing games in the country in the second half of the season. That was until the most important time of the game, of course. On the touchdown that gave the Wolfpack life and cut the lead to 30-28, a breakdown in communication between Tony Grimes and Cam’Ron Kelly left Emeka Emezie wide open down the field for a touchdown, something that simply cannot happen in that situation. On the final drive, Kelly then had an opportunity on the game winning touchdown to make a play on the 50/50 ball to Emezie and simply took a bad angle to the ball and was outmuscled for the touchdown. Inconsistent play from the safeties has been an issue for the Tar Heels since the beginning of last year and is something that they simply must get sorted out this offseason, even if that involves going into the transfer portal.
Special Teams, Which Had Been So Good This Season, Cost Them This One
Mack Brown demanded improvement from his special teams unit this offseason and headed into Friday night, they had done just that. However, on Friday night, the unit picked a bad day to have a bad day. It started in the first half with two blocked punts, including one that resulted in an NC State touchdown off the Tar Heels opening drive of the game. As bad as that was, the failed onside kick recovery was even more egregious in a situation where you were still in control of your own destiny. Those special teams blunders resulted in 14 points for the Wolfpack, a major difference in this game, and wasted another clutch kick from Grayson Atkins, who could only sit and watch as the unit fell apart around him.
Untimely Penalties and Drops Comeback to Hurt You Again
These are two things that have plagued you in road losses over the last couple of seasons and they once again showed up in this one. The Tar Heels entered the fourth quarter with just two penalties the entire night, but they proceeded to take five in the final stanza, including four in the final 1:29 of the game. Some of the calls were definitely ones worth arguing over, but this is just a team that seems to keep finding ways to shoot themselves in the foot late in close games this season. Antoine Green also had two huge drops on the night, both of which would have been touchdowns and the latter of which would have put the Tar Heels up 31-21 instead of 27-21 in the middle of the final quarter. At some point, these types of things have to be able to go your way and this season, they simply haven’t.
British Brooks Should Have Been Playing More This Season
Brooks was listed as the No. 2 running back on the depth chart in pregame behind Ty Chandler and was a bright spot for the Tar Heels in this one. Behind his motivated running style, Brooks ran for 124 yards on fifteen carries, easily a career best in both categories, leading the team in rushing on a night where the team ran for 297 yards as a whole. With the way that he played tonight, though, and the inconsistencies that we’ve seen from the backs behind Chandler this season, the question needs to be asked: why didn’t we see more of British Brooks this season?
Sam Howell Deserved a Better Finish If This Is It
In many people’s minds, Friday was probably Sam Howell’s last time suiting up for the Tar Heels with him likely moving on to the NFL. If this is in fact the case, what a terrible way to send out the program’s best and one of the ACC greatest quarterbacks of all time, especially after he missed the final home game of his career with an injury. Howell could have easily sat this game out if his goal was to head to the NFL and just prepare for the draft following that injury, but he came back and once again gave you everything he had despite a porous offensive line in front of him on Friday. Instead of what would have been a well deserved come-from-behind win against a rival, Howell could be leaving on one of the most sour notes in program history.
Stacy Searls Has to Be On the Chopping Block
The idea of moving on from Stacy Searls isn’t exactly a new one, but that was reiterated on Friday night with yet another tough night for the group in pass protection. The Tar Heel offensive line allowed five more sacks of Sam Howell, continuing their woes that have been heightened on the road this season. The Tar Heels finish the regular season having allowed 45.0 sacks, 27.0 of which came in the five road games this season. You simply have to be better and that starts with the coaching.