Friday night was one of the toughest days to stomach in the history of Tar Heel athletics. On the basketball court, the Tar Heels fell in the semifinals of the Phil Knight Invitational to Iowa State out in Portland as they were cooked by a relative unknown in the form of Caleb Grill. That came just five minutes after the Tar Heels suffered a heartbreaking loss to the rival NC State Wolfpack in double overtime. Here are our takeaways from a second consecutive loss that has Mack Brown and company reeling heading into next weekend’s ACC title game.
This Team Didn’t Put the Georgia Tech Game Behind Them
One of the biggest keys to this game for the Tar Heels was to be able to put the loss to Georgia Tech behind them. It was evident from the first play of the game that the team had not done that. For a second straight week, the Tar Heel offense was out of rhythm, this time right from the opening kick. Through three quarters, the team had just 182 yards of total offense, something this team had been used to putting up in quarters alone this season and looked just completely out of sorts. Drake Maye had a second straight tough night, but that was in large part due to the struggles of the offensive line and the receivers inability to create separation. With the offense out of rhythm from the get go, this game basically became an extension of last week’s game against Georgia Tech and led to a second straight loss that has put a damper on what was an outstanding season through the first ten games.
Offensive Line Collapse is Stalling This Offense
The past two weeks, the Tar Heel offense has looked a lot like the one from a year ago. The main reason for that: the play of the offensive line. The unit has allowed 21.0 tackles for loss in the past two weeks, putting the offense in holes way too often. With the team behind the sticks, this has become an offense that is having to look for big plays too often instead of moving the football methodically the way they had the entire season. The right side of the group continued to have their fits, especially tackle Spencer Rolland, who allowed five more pressures. In total, NC State was credited with 28 pressures on the quarterback, the most that any team has had against the Tar Heels all season long. In order for this offense to get back to being as lethal as it was in the first ten games of the season, this unit has to find themselves again and, at the least, be able to keep the pocket cleaner to allow Maye to make plays.
Secondary is Getting Better, But the Defensive Line Is Not
This Tar Heel defense was far from the main culprit in this loss, but they were picked apart again at times by a fourth-string quarterback for the second straight week. The defensive line continues to be the biggest issue for the defense because they have failed to get any sort of consistent push. The front four registered just seven total quarterback pressures on Friday, the sixth time this season that they have failed to reach double-digit pressures in a game this season. For comparison, NC State’s Davin Vann had nine by himself in this one. The most frustrating part is that this secondary has actually been showing signs of progress. The unit had one of their best showings of the season on Saturday and that was without both of their starting corners during the most important part of the game. Storm Duck looked really good again outside of when he fell down on the opening drive, but he missed the 4th quarter. That left Lejond Cavazos, who started in place of Tony Grimes, and true freshman Marcus Allen, who had played just 30 defensive snaps all season, to handle the responsibilities outside in the 4th quarter and overtime and they both handled themselves extremely well. In the slot, DeAndre Boykins had his best game of the season, holding the Wolfpack’s leading receiver Thomas Thayer to just two catches for just two yards. At safety, Cam’Ron Kelly left the game early with an injury, forcing the team to use more of Will Hardy and Don Chapman, a move that provided some of the best deep coverage of the season. This secondary has seemed to figure it out here down the stretch of the season, but the defensive line is still holding the defense back from being one that can win games.
Home Woes Have Supplanted Road Woes
In the first three seasons under Mack Brown, Kenan Stadium was a place of solitude for a program that struggled to win games on the road. This season, the Tar Heels figured out how to win on the road, going a perfect 6-0, but they took a major step back at home. For the first time since Brown’s first season back, the team lost three games at home and all of them came to opponents that the Tar Heels had to feel like they were better than at the time that they welcomed them in. As hard as it is to believe, this team has to learn how to win the games that they are supposed to at home again if they want to take another step forward.
9-3 is A Good Season, But How You Got There Is Not
If you would have told me in the preseason that this Tar Heel team was going to finish the season with a 9-3 record and that we would be heading back to the ACC Championship Game for the first time in seven years, I would have taken it in a heartbeat. However, the way that this team got to 9-3 this year leaves it hard to be satisfied with how the season has turned out. Even if the team had found a way to eke out a victory in one of the final two games, especially if it was this one on Friday, this season would have a much different feel to it. Now, there is a chance that this team could finish 9-5, a record that would leave many disappointed after a 9-1 start.