For the second time in as many years, the Tar Heels welcomed in a college football playoff contender from the top of the ACC, as they hoped to get the program a signature win over the No. 2 Notre Dame Fighting Irish. The Tar Heels defense did everything they could to keep the team in this game, but the offense was simply outplayed by the Irish defense, as Notre Dame pulled out the 31-17 victory in Chapel Hill. Here is what we learned about this Tar Heel team in this tough, but progressive loss.
Trench Play Just Isn’t Ready For This Type of Game
The difference in Friday’s loss came in the trenches, where the Tar Heels were simply outworked by the Fighting Irish. The Tar Heels defensive line actually held their own for a majority of the game, but had their moments where they were pushed around by an undermanned, but still extremely physical Notre Dame offensive line. The deciding factor in this game was the play of the Tar Heel offensive line, which just couldn’t hold up in the second half against a Notre Dame defensive line that was the deepest they have faced all year. The group allowed six sacks and simply couldn’t give this offense the running lanes or time to throw that they needed to move the ball down the field. This is an area that needs to remain a focus of this staff in the next few recruiting classes for this staff as they look to become a unit that can compete with the likes of Notre Dame and Clemson.
This Defense Has Some Young Guys to Be Excited About
The Tar Heels saw some young up and comers play some significant snaps defensively on Saturday and the glimpse at the future looks promising. Tony Grimes was the most notable, playing a significant role on the outside and holding his own rather well for a reclassified true freshman, as Kirk Herbstreit pointed out multiple times. He wasn’t the only player that had a significant impact, though. Des Evans and Chris Collins started for Jay Bateman on the defensive line and showed some nice promise, as did fellow underclassmen Myles Murphy, who saw significant reps as the game progressed. Ja’Qurious Conley also played a big role in the slot for the Tar Heels, continuing to build upon the expanded role that he has seen the past two weeks. All of these guys have had some bumps in the road, but the good news is you can already see the talent that is there. This experience is only going to serve them well down the road, but should give people hope that this defense is still heading in the right direction overall, despite some setbacks at times this season.
Defensive Rotation Needs to Remain Going Forward
One of the main reasons that this Tar Heel defense was as successful as it was on Friday was the fact that the Tar Heels were rotating players. You can tell that some of the guys, especially up front have been worn down as the season has gone along, leaving them less effective than they were earlier in the season. Both Tomari Fox and Raymond Vohasek started the season firing out of the gate and showing a lot of promise, but as the season went along, they were showing you just how special Jason Strowbridge and Aaron Crawford were with the amount of reps and level play they were still able to produce at a year ago. Friday saw much more rotation amongst the unit, most importantly on that defensive line and allowed the Tar Heel defense to remain competitive for the majority of the game. This is a recipe that needs to be used in the final game of the season against Miami to help this defense remain fresh and competitive against D’Eriq King and the Hurricanes productive offense.
Tar Heels Have to Find Solutions in The Middle of the Field in Passing Situations
Defending the middle of the field in passing situations has been a problem for this Tar Heel defense for a majority of the season, but it has become a major issue for the team in the past two games. The team has repeatedly tried to find success with Jeremiah Gemmel covering 1-on-1 in open space and it simply hasn’t been working. At this point, Bateman and the defensive staff had to toy with the idea of putting either Khadry Jackson or another nickel corner on the field to help this team in coverage, especially in third down-and-obvious passing situations. The Tar Heels safeties also have to be more productive at helping take away the deep middle, something that was more of an issue against Wake Forest than it was this week. Getting off the field on third downs is important for this defense that is still going through some growing pains and right now Gemmel isn’t giving them the best chance to do that when matched up in coverage.
Penalties Will Continue to Hinder This Team
It seems to just be a part of this 2020 team, but penalties were a big problem for this Tar Heel team on Friday in the loss. The Tar Heels racked up nine penalties that resulted in 90 free yards for this Notre Dame offense, including two big ones on the eventual game-winning drive for the Irish in the third quarter. The team is averaging 7.8 penalties per game and 75.1 penalty yards per game, which is troubling, and these penalties have made a huge difference in these close games all season long. Getting these penalty issues corrected will be important for this Tar Heel team going into next year, where the expectations should be to make the ACC Championship Game and give Clemson a game.