One of the most difficult stretches in recent memory for Tar Heel football kicked off on Saturday night in South Bend. Despite a strong offensive showing, the Tar Heels came up short thanks to another lackluster defensive effort that left plenty to be desired. Here is a look at our biggest takeaways from another tough setback in this hard-to-stomach 2021 season.
The Fight is Still There
This is a season that has gone in a much different direction than many were anticipating in the offseason. Not only was this a preseason top ten team that entered today 4-3, but those three losses had come to teams with a combined record of 9-12 so far this season. With the season not going as many planned, this was a unit that could have been susceptible to a blowout on Saturday night. Instead, in one of the best environments in all of college football, the team came out prepared to play and stuck around the entire game despite multiple errors defensively. The team could have let the game get away from them when they allowed the two touchdown drives right after the half, but they responded and at least gave themselves a chance down the stretch. The offense showed the fight they needed all night, especially quarterback Sam Howell, who tried to put the team on his back with one of his best performances of the season. The hope is that this effort can carry over into the next two weeks, as the team still has to face two of the best teams in the ACC in the next two weeks.
Offense Shows Signs of Promise
We have been talking all season about the fact that the Tar Heel offense needs to find some help for their two stars, Sam Howell and Josh Downs, and they did that on Saturday night. It all started up front where the Tar Heels took a step forward, allowing three sacks and seven tackles for loss, but still getting much better push than they have in the past few games. Ty Chandler strung together a second consecutive productive performance in this one thanks to another long touchdown run of 53 yards in the second quarter, his fourth play of the season that has gone 50 or more yards. The most encouraging part of the night offensively, though, was the fact that the Tar Heels finally got some production from pass catchers other than Josh Downs for the first time in weeks. Antoine Green had his best game since the home opener against Georgia State, catching five passes for 83 yards and a touchdown on eight targets and creating some nice separation for himself throughout the night. That was paired with a breakout performance from true freshman tight end Bryson Nesbit, who saw his most extensive action of the year and turned it into three catches for 50 yards on his three targets. Even Justin Olson contributed early on with a couple of nice grabs after registering just two catches all season prior to Saturday’s game. With the way that this defense has played this season, it is important this offense builds upon what
This Defense is the Worst of the Second Mack Brown Era
The Tar Heels were once again held back by another rough defensive performance. Very similar to a year ago, the Tar Heels were pushed back off the line of scrimmage and were torn apart by running back Kyren Williams. The problem is this was not nearly the rushing attack that the Tar Heels faced last year in Chapel Hill. The Fighting Irish ranked as the 115th rushing attack in the country that was averaging just 107.7 yards per game but ran for 293 yards and three touchdowns on Saturday. The Tar Heel defense had absolutely no answer for Williams on Saturday, as he ran for 199 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries including the 91-yard run that pretty much put the game out of reach after a big touchdown drive by the Tar Heel offense that had cut the lead to four. Missed tackles were a big issue for this team once again on Saturday night highlighted by that 91-yard touchdown. This defense came into this season with expectations that they could take some major steps forward this season with more talent and more depth, but instead, they have taken major steps back and are starting to resemble some of the Larry Fedora era defenses , which is a scary thought.
Jay Bateman Hot Seat Just Keeps Heating Up
As we said above, this is a unit that is starting to look like some of the ones that we saw during the Larry Fedora and the bulk of the blame needs to fall on Bateman. The missed tackle issue is something that has continued to pop up on a weekly basis this season and while it is a lack of execution from the players, it is also on the coaching staff who clearly haven’t made the adjustments in practice. Another trend that is becoming concerning is the lack of adjustments from Bateman in the second half of games. The Fighting Irish offense totaled 326 yards and 9.9 yards per play in the second half on Saturday night, including 234 yards and 9.4 yards per carry on the ground. This is the second straight game where the defense has simply been torched in the second half and that is on Bateman who simply hasn’t been able to counteract the adjustments that the opposing offensive coordinators have made against his defense. This defense just continues to trend in the wrong direction week after week and if it continues it feels like there could be a new defensive coordinator in Chapel Hill this offseason.
Late Game Decision Making Still Makes No Sense
One of the frustrating things with the second Mack Brown era has been some of the late-game decisions and Saturday night was another display of that on the final drive. While it was unlikely that the Tar Heels were going to be able to find a way to win, the staff made sure there was no chance of that by choosing not to kick the field goal that could have cut the lead to seven and at least given them the opportunity to recover an onside kick and attempt to complete a miraculous comeback, Instead, for the second time in three games, the staff basically quit on the game, deciding to go for the touchdown and came away with no points. Mind-boggling to say the least.