The Tar Heels nearly completed their second straight massive comeback win over a ranked ACC opponent on Thursday night, but unfortunately fell short in overtime against the Coastal-leading Pittsburgh Panthers. The loss drops the Tar Heels back to .500 on the season and keeps them winless on the road, meaning that they will have to beat rival NC State in the season finale on November 26th to avoid an 0-for mark on the road this season. Prior to that, though, the Tar Heels will host Senior Day in Kenan Stadium on Saturday as they welcome in the FCS Wofford Terriers in search of a sixth win on the season. We tell who is trending up and who is trending down heading into Saturday’s game.
After back-to-back strong performances for the unit, they were brutalized by the Pittsburgh front line on Thursday night, especially in the first half. They allowed five sacks of quarterback Sam Howell in the first half alone and were only able to pave the way for six rushing yards for the team in that half. They had a much better showing in the second half, but this is still a unit that allowed eleven tackles for loss in this game and allowed way too much pressure on Howell throughout the night. They will have to be much better two weeks from now against another defensive line that will provide a stiff test.
Chandler returned back to earth on Thursday night following a career performance in the upset of Wake Forest. He ran for just 42 yards on 14 carries, his worst game of the season for a Tar Heel run game that averaged just 2.3 yards per carry in this one. The key to the success for this Tar Heel offense is to run the ball successfully and they did not do that on Thursday night. That can’t be the case in the final two games of the season.
Duck looked great in his return a week ago, but he struggled on Thursday night. He was picked on a lot in that first half, getting beat a few times while in man coverage, highlighted by the long touchdown pass from Kenny Pickett to Jared Wayne in the second quarter. He also had an issue with penalties, as he was flagged twice in coverage and both resulted in first downs for the Panthers. Duck is still a valuable part of this Tar Heel secondary and they are much better with him in there than not, but they need him to bounce back in the final two games of the season.
Tucker was one of the biggest issues early on for the Tar Heel offensive line. Tucker was benched in favor of William Barnes in the first quarter after allowing two sacks on the first two drives and spent the majority of the night on the sideline after that. Tucker has had these moments this season, but this was a bad game for his struggles to show up. He and Barnes may be splitting reps going forward and rightfully so.
Ezeudu didn’t have a bad night in terms of his actual play, but he had some issues with penalties late in the game, including the biggest penalty of a game that was filled with them for the Tar Heels. He was flagged for holding early in the final drive on a 17-yard scamper by Howell, but the team was ultimately able to overcome that penalty and move the ball down the field. The most important one, though, was the false start penalty that he committed on 2nd & Goal from the Pitt 2 that backed the Tar Heels up and led to the team having to settle for the field goal to tie the game. This team as a whole has had issues with discipline, but this is particularly frustrating because of the fact that Ezeudu is the leader and most consistent member of this offensive line.
Green is thriving in the second half of the season and he had another strong showing on Thursday night. He once again led the Tar Heels in receiving with 108 yards receiving on three catches, including a 76-yard catch that opened the scoring for the team after a brutal first quarter. Two of Green’s three receptions resulted in touchdowns against the Panthers, giving him three straight games with at least one touchdown. Green has quietly been the Tar Heels best receiver over the past three weeks and he will be relied on heavily in the final two games of the regular season, as well, with teams starting to key in on Josh Downs.
Gemmel may have had his best game of the season on Thursday night in Pittsburgh. He led the team with ten total tackles, including one tackle for a loss, which was a sack and he also pulled down the interception off the deflection for the Tar Heels that put them in position to eventually tie the game. Following last week’s ejection for targeting and the subsequent performance by Power Echols, some were wondering if Gemmel should have some reps taken by the talented true freshman. This performance should make people think twice about that.
Downs bounced back from a quiet game against Wake Forest on Thursday night. He once again led the team in targets with 11 and caught eight of those for 95 yards, including another outstanding diving reception on the 46-yard reception in the fourth quarter on the touchdown drive that cut the lead to three. Downs is still on pace to break the mark for both receptions and receiving yards and they may need another huge performance from him in two weeks against NC State.
Evans may have only finished with two total tackles in the game on Thursday night, but he was all over the backfield affecting plays in this one. He did a good job all night of beating the tackles that he was lined up against and providing some consistent pressure on the quarterback throughout the night. He still needs to do a better job of finishing plays when the opportunities present themselves, but it is good to see him finally being able to get off blocks and find his way into the backfield.
Evans was the standout amongst the group, but as a whole, they had a great day. Tomon Fox and Kaimon Rucker joined Evans in having good days off the edge and on the inside young guys like Jahvaree Ritzie and Kevin Hester Jr. thrived, as did Raymond Vohasek. This was one of the best defensive front performances of the season and was a major factor in the Panthers second half struggles to move the football and their inability to run the football on the Tar Heels on Thursday night.