The Tar Heels closed down their 2021 home slate on Saturday afternoon when they took down the Wofford Terriers 34-14 in what was their first game without Sam Howell starting since the 2018 season finale. The expectation is that the team will have Howell back for the regular season finale this Friday at NC State as the Tar Heels look to complete the sweep of the state of North Carolina this season. As the team heads towards that matchup with the rival Wolfpack, we give you a look at who and what is trending up and down.
Brooks was the star of the group of seniors that was honored on Saturday, seeing the most action that he has seen all season on offense and capitalizing on it. Brooks led the Tar Heels in rushing on Saturday, running for 89 yards and two touchdowns on seven carries, easily the best performance of his Tar Heel career. Brooks won’t probably won’t see much of a role on Friday against NC State, but this was a special moment for the senior who has been a special teams standout for the majority of his career.
Maye played the entire second half for Tar Heels and showed some nice promise that should give him the slight edge in the quarterback battle moving forward. Maye completed seven of his nine passes for 89 yards and a touchdown, the first of his career, to Kamari Morales. Maye also showed some nice mobility, running for 38 yards on four carries, something that Mack Brown praised him for in the postgame.
While Maye might have been the better of the two in my opinion, it wasn’t like Criswell had a bad game on Saturday. Criswell finished 11 of 19 for 125 yards and ran for 66 yards and a touchdown on five carries, all of which came in the first half. The Tar Heel offense involved a lot of quick passes and screen plays and he struggled on the deep and intermediate pass down the field. This was a solid first start, though, for Criswell and does show that he will put up a fight to try to win the starting quarterback battle this offseason, as well.
The true freshman wide receiver saw the most extensive action of his young career on Saturday and had a pretty solid day. Jones was targeted four times and caught three of those for 61 yards including an impressive 46 yard grab in the 4th quarter on a play where he was falling to the ground. The Tar Heels are hoping to have every major contributor from their current receiving corps back and Saturday may have been the start of Jones’ push to earn a bigger role moving forward.
Vohasek had arguably his most productive game of the season on Saturday for a Tar Heel defensive line that still had moments where they were pushed around a bit. Vohasek finished with four total tackles and two tackles for loss, the most on the team in this one. Vohasek needs to be able to build off this performance against a much better offensive line unit on Friday to help the Tar Heel defense slow down an NC State offense that will come in playing their best football of the season.
⇧Kevin Hester Jr.
Vohasek wasn’t the only Tar Heel defensive lineman that stepped up and played well on Saturday. Hester Jr. finished the day with four total tackles, including one for a loss in limited reps, continuing to show his value as a depth piece on this defensive line. Can he now build on this and be one of the defensive linemen that steps up on Friday?
Chandler had a solid showing in the limited reps that he saw early in this game, bouncing back from an extremely quiet game at Pittsburgh. He finished with 78 yards on ten carries, helping the Tar Heels to race out to the early lead. In the process, he reached the 1,000 yard rushing mark for the season, the 31st time in program history that an individual has accomplished the feat.
Downs continued to pace himself to overtake two major single season receiving marks with yet another strong performance. Downs led the Tar Heels in receiving once again, catching eight of his eleven targets for 89 yards, meaning he has now finished all but one game with eight or more catches. He is now six catches away from tying Ryan Switzer single season record for receptions in a season and is just 24 yards away from tying Hakeem Nicks record for receiving yards in a single season.
This game was supposed to be one where the Tar Heels were able to dominate and gain some confidence, but that wasn’t exactly the case for the Tar Heel defense. With Wofford being a read option heavy team, it was expected that this Tar Heel run defense would give up some rushing yards, but the Terriers ran for 209 yards and 4.6 yards per play on Saturday. The good news is, NC State isn’t a great rushing team, but this team simply has to start finding ways to more consistently stop the run as they set the table for next year.
At this point in the season, just about every team has their fair share of injuries to deal with, but the Tar Heels had a rough day on Saturday with injuries. Not only did Howell not start the game and will remain a question mark heading into Friday, but the Tar Heels lost one of their better defensive players and the team’s best defensive back this season in Ja’Qurious Conley to a season-ending knee injury on the opening kickoff of the day. The Tar Heels will now have to scramble to find a solution in the nickel spot that will be matched up with the productive slot receiver Thayer Thomas for most of the night on Friday. Mack Brown also said earlier this week that both Jeremiah Gemmel and D.J. Jones was banged up in the game, although he did say that he chose to hold Gemmel out and that he could have come back into the game if needed. Far from the ideal situation healthwise for the team heading into this matchup.
⇩Red Zone Offense
The Tar Heels red zone offense has slowly begun to fall off as the season has progressed and that continued on Friday. The issue has not been overall red zone scoring, as the team is scoring on 88.1% of the red zone trips this season, but instead lies with the fact that the scoring hasn’t involved enough touchdowns lately. Since the bye, the Tar Heels have converted just nine of their 19 red zone opportunities into touchdowns and it has cost them in losses to Notre Dame and Pittsburgh. This was a big issue for Phil Longo during his tenure at Ole Miss, but was something that he had seemed to be able to solve in his time with the Tar Heels. It has become clear