Updated: Nov 16, 2019
As the Tar Heels took to Heinz Field on Thursday night, not only were they looking to earn a seventh straight victory over the Pittsburgh Panthers, they were also looking to get a step closer to a bowl game. Another tough night defensively was neutralized enough by another strong night through the air for the passing game to get the game into overtime, but wasn’t enough as the Tar Heels dropped another nail-biter, falling to the Panthers 34-27 in the first overtime. Let’s take a look at what we learned on Thursday night in Pittsburgh.
Defensive Line Struggles a Big Part of the Defensive Struggles
The secondary has received a lot of criticism over the past few weeks and rightfully so, but this defensive line has had an awful second half of the 2019 season. Thursday night was the culmination of that, especially in the first half, where they were dominated at the point of attack by a struggling Pittsburgh offensive line. Aaron Crawford and Jason Strowbridge haven’t been as effective as they were early in the season, but you have to believe that’s in large part due to the fact that offensive lines have been scheming to take them out of plays. The more concerning issues lay at the two pass rushing spots, where guys like Tomon Fox, Tomari Fox and Allen Cater simply haven’t been enough since that first bye week in the middle part of the season. Without much pressure on opposing quarterbacks, the Tar Heel secondary has been picked apart in back-to-back weeks with both Bryce Perkins and Kenny Pickett throwing for over 350 yards in the past two weeks. This unit needs to improve over the final two weeks or there is a legitimate chance this 2019 Tar Heel team will not be going bowling again for the third straight season.
Missed Opportunities in the Passing Game Comeback to Haunt Tar Heels
While Sam Howell put together another nice performance on Thursday night, but left a few big pass plays on the field. Both Dazz Newsome and Dyami Brown were able to get behind the defense in the third quarter, but Howell just wasn’t able to connect on three passes that likely would have resulted in huge gains. If quarterback and receiver had been able to connect on any of the three opportunities, the Tar Heels might have been able to complete the comeback in regulation. This isn’t something that Tar Heels fans should be overly concerned about going forward, though, especially because of the fact that Howell leads the country in touchdown passes of 20 yards or more.
The Overall Passing Game Should Still Excite People
For the second straight game, the Tar Heels had a receiver that finish with more 150 yards receiving, as Dazz Newsome hauled in 11 receptions for 170 yards and a touchdown, while Beau Corrales added 92 yards and a touchdown of his own on five receptions. This follows the huge 202 yard and three touchdown performance from Dyami Brown against Virginia, who caught five more passes for 35 yards and a touchdown on Thursday night. The three have formed a formidable core for this Tar Heel passing attack in 2019 and with all three returning in 2020 barring an unexpected departure, the Tar Heels will bring a strong proven group of pass catchers into Sam Howell’s second season in Chapel Hill. Add in the fact that guys like Emery Simmons and Khafre Brown will have another year in the system and the group will also add guys like Josh Downs and Ray Rose to the mix. Your excitement should definitely be building about what this Tar Heel passing game has a chance to be next season.
Referees Got Themselves Involved Again
The criticism began early when Pittsburgh defensive tackle Amir Watts was allowed to remain in the game after a reviewed targeting call was reversed despite Beau Corrales being defenseless on the ground and Watts leading with his helmet. Later in the game, Allen Cater was called for roughing the passer after a bang-bang play with quarterback Kenny Pickett where Cater hit him just seconds after releasing the football and spun him softly to the ground without putting any weight behind the hit. The most egregious mistake of the night, though, came on a no call in overtime. Outside linebacker Dominique Ross blitzed off the edge on Pittsburgh’s 3rd & 14 attempt in overtime when Rashad Wheeler reached out and got a handful of Ross’ facemask, slowing him from getting to Pickett. That would go unflagged and Pittsburgh would complete a 15-yard pass to Taysir Mack that would move the sticks, eventually leading to the game-winning touchdown. The referees were far from the main reason the Tar Heels lost on Thursday night, but like the Virginia Tech game, the officials definitely deserve to be criticized.
This Team Has the Fight But Just Can’t Close Out Games
For the ninth time in the Tar Heels first ten games of the season, the game came down to the final possession. The Tar Heels are just 3-6 in those games so far this season, but the team continues to show signs of growth. That doesn’t mean it isn’t difficult right now, though, and that’s okay. It’s part of the growth process and with this team graduating just twelve seniors this year, this young 2019 team will be a deeper, more experienced 2020 team that should be able to turn those close games into wins next season.