The Tar Heels looked as if they were headed to a second straight loss to the Wake Forest Demon Deacons midway through the third quarter of Saturday’s game. However, in a similar situation to the team’s two losses this season, they were able to claw their way back into the game, but this time the story ended a bit differently. The Tar Heels were able to reel off 35 straight points and complete the 21-point comeback, beating the Demon Deacons 59-53 to complete a perfect season against in-state opponents. As the Tar Heels head towards their third bye week of the season, we give you a look at who’s trending up and who’s trending down.
Howell put together one of the single greatest performances in program history to help the Tar Heels complete the comeback. He got it going early, throwing for 232 yards in the first quarter, the most passing yards in a quarter by any quarterback in the FBS this season. He would close the first half with 323 yards passing and three touchdowns, but was still trailing by 11 at the half. Howell got his opportunity in the second half and thrived, though, finishing the day with a program-record 550 passing yards and six passing touchdowns. He added another touchdown on the ground to set another program record with seven total touchdowns. Howell played so well in this game that he might have put himself back in the running to grab some Heisman votes if he can close the season strong.
The Tar Heels senior slot receiver has had a tough season following his 1,000 yard receiving year as a junior. He got his chance to step up on Saturday, though, and took over this game early. Newsome caught all ten of his targets for 189 yards and caught two long touchdowns in the first half, one for 75 yards to open the scoring for the Tar Heels and the other a 44-yard reception early in the second quarter. Five of his ten catches went for 10+ yards, as he was finally able to make some plays in open space with his ability after the catch. The hope is that this can get Newsome energized for a tough two game stretch to finish the ACC regular season schedule.
Newsome wasn’t the only receiver who had a big day on Saturday. Dyami Brown had another huge performance following an amazing game against Virginia two weeks ago. He caught eight of the nine passes that were thrown his way on Saturday afternoon for 163 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 20.4 yards per reception. Brown is known as the deep threat in this offense and he thrived in that role once again in this one, with five of his eight receptions going for 15 or more yards.
It wasn’t the greatest of starts to the day for the Tar Heel breakout running back, but he rebounded nicely and made some crucial plays to help the Tar Heels find a way to win on Saturday. Williams converted a couple of key third and fourth downs including an extremely critical 3rd & 5 on the game-tying drive. Williams finished the game with 101 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries, extending his streak of games with at least one rushing touchdown to eight straight games. He was also the player on the hands team that recovered the Wake Forest onside kick attempt to seal the victory.
Johnson got the start at center for an injured Brian Anderson and has a very solid performance against the Demon Deacons. Johnson played all 84 snaps for the Tar Heels on Saturday and was able to more than hold his own in both run and pass blocking situations. There was some concern here after Anderson’s injury, but Johnson, a junior walk-on, looked as good as anyone could have hoped.
The reclassified true freshman was thrown into significant action in the second half of this game as the team searched for someone who helped slow this Wake Forest passing game down. The Demon Deacons tried to test the young corner a few times, but he held up well, doing a great job of contesting a couple of deep throws when in man coverage, an area he thrives in. It was great to see Grimes flash and show that raw talent that we know he possesses, but the Tar Heels have to be careful not to put too much on him too early.
Fox is one of the veterans on this Tar Heel defense, but he was almost non-existent on the field on Saturday. He played 82 of the team’s 95 defensive snaps against the Demon Deacons, but failed to register any statistics. This is not the type of performance that the Tar Heels need, especially from one of their veteran defensive leaders, in a game of such major importance. The problems with consistency that have plagued Fox his entire career have been an issue again this year, but the Tar Heels need him to close out the final three games of the regular season strong if the defense wants to take a step forward.
Hopper was out of sorts from the beginning in this one. He had trouble controlling the edges against the Demon Deacons rushing attack in this one and when he had chances to make plays, he simply took bad angles or flat out missed the tackles. He wasn’t able to provide much pass rush help, either in his 27 pass rushing reps, failing to register a sack or even a pressure in those snaps. Hopper has really struggled over the past few weeks and with Chris Collins, Kaimon Rucker and Desmond Evans all showing flashes, it might be time to start giving them some more reps as we hit the final three games of the regular season.
Tomon wasn’t the only Fox brother who struggled in Saturday’s game against the Demon Deacons. Tomari saw less snaps on the day than Tomon did, but he wasn’t able to have much more of an impact, finishing the game with just one tackle and failing to register any pressure on the quarterback in 39 pass rushing reps. It’s been growing more and more obvious in the past few weeks that Fox is undersized on the inside as a pseudo-defensive tackle in the Tar Heels unorthodox front four scheme and that’s something that the Tar Heels will have to make adjustments with in the offseason. For the rest of the year, the Tar Heels need Fox to just find a way to hold his own, especially in their next game against Notre Dame.
Hollins was forced into the lineup a few weeks ago when Kyler McMichael went down with an injury and he had played pretty well heading into Saturday. Sam Hartman and this Wake Forest passing attack was a problem for him on Saturday, though, primarily in the first half. He had a lot of trouble in coverage, especially when matched up against Jaquarii Roberson on the outside. Hollins has been serviceable as a replacement on the outside, but there are times where talent can overwhelm him, so if McMichael can return after the bye week, that would allow him to return to the rotational role that he has had much more success in.
Chapman returned the lineup on Saturday after missing the prior game against Duke with an injury. It was a bit of a tough showing for the sophomore free safety who wasn’t nearly as aggressive in run defense as he had been before he got banged up, finishing with just two total tackles, despite Wake Forest ripping off eight plays of 15+ yards on the ground. He also was part of the miscommunications that happened in the secondary far too often on Saturday and led to a lot of open receivers and big passing plays for the Demon Deacons. The Tar Heels are hoping he can recover against Notre Dame, but you have to wonder if Trey Morrison might just be the better fit at free safety for this team right now.