For the third time this season and the second straight game, the Tar Heels headed to Hard Rock Stadium in Miami looking to beat a top ten opponent in Saturday night’s Capital One Orange Bowl. A short-handed team that was without three of its top offensive weapons and arguably its top defensive player fought the entire way, heading into the final minutes tied with a No. 5 Texas A&M Aggies team that some thought should have been playing the day before in the college football semifinal. Unfortunately, the Aggies were able to wear down the Tar Heel defense and execute when it mattered, as they pulled away with two late touchdowns to beat the Tar Heels 41-27. Here’s what we learned about the Tar Heels in this hard-fought loss.
This Offense Will Be Fine Next Year
Many national pundits were extremely concerned about this Tar Heel offense coming in, but as they showed in this one, this still has the chance to be a powerful unit next season. Josh Downs had a breakout performance in this one and should be the favorite to take over in the slot for Dazz Newsome, who it seems won’t pursue the extra year of eligibility that is available to everyone this season due to COVID-19. Khafre Brown had a key drop that would have been a huge gain, but he still showed some more good signs in this one prior to that and definitely has the talent and skill set to be a key contributor in this offense for years to come. At running back, it was a bit shocking that we didn’t see more of Elijah Green, but both British Brooks and Josh Henderson showed some promise about the future of this backfield. Add in players like Beau Corrales and D.J. Jones, guys who missed tonight’s game that likely would have been major contributors tonight, and some other talented options that have a chance to earn bigger roles this offseason, there is a reason to be confident that the Tar Heels can still field one of the ACC most dynamic offenses.
Defense Takes Another Step
Similar to the offense, there is a lot to be confident about when it comes to the future of this Tar Heel defense. Jay Bateman put together another fantastic gameplan in this one and some of the young players stepped up and played well. Eugene Asante looked very promising in his first career start, showcasing some nice sideline-to-sideline ability and making a couple of really nice plays in the A and B gaps to get contact on Aggie ball carriers in the backfield. Ja’Quirous Conley had another strong showing in this one, as it appears he will be a big part of this team out of the nickel for this team over the next few years. The biggest standout, though, once again was Tony Grimes, who had yet another tremendous night in coverage on the outside. The front four once again saw a heavy rotation of youth and veterans once again, most of whom will return next season, and held their own for three quarters before being pushed around a bit late. For the first time in a while, there is growing confidence that this Tar Heel defense can become one of the better defenses in the conference in coming years and there is evidence to back up those claims.
Trenches Still Have Some Work to Do
The offensive and defensive lines weren’t bad in this one, but they just weren’t at the level they needed to be to win this game. The offensive line wasn’t able to consistently provide the push in the run game that this inexperienced group of running backs needed and had moments late in the game where they struggled to give Sam Howell a clean pocket to throw from. The defensive line held their own for most of the night, but was worn down in the second half by one of the nation’s top offensive lines. If this is the type of stage that the Tar Heels are wanting to play on in the next few seasons, they’ll have to be able to win some of these types of battles in the trenches, something they’re working on addressing on the recruiting trail.
The Safety Spots Might Be A Bigger Concern Than Is Being Talked About
While the corner closed the season very well, the other part of this secondary continued to struggle. Trey Morrison had a tough night tackling in the open field and in coverage, while Don Chapman missed a key tackle in the open field on the eventual game-winning touchdown. The unit has struggled to help in run defense as the year has progressed after success earlier in the season and the coverage in the middle of the field has deteriorated as well. This is an area that the Tar Heels need to take a hard look at in the offseason and open up to competition in the spring and possibly into fall camp if needed.