For the first time in seven years, the Tar Heels are going to Charlotte to play for an ACC Championship. The feeling around the team, though, has changed dramatically since they clinched the Coastal division title a few weeks ago. The Tar Heels have lost two straight against teams that they felt like they were better than coming in and are out of sync offensively. As the team tries to recollect itself and find their way to a second NY6 bowl game in three years, here is a look at who is trending up and trending down on this Tar Heel team.
The Tar Heel offense has been out of sorts in each of the past two weeks and it is largely because of the play of the offensive line. The Tar Heels had 12 plays of zero or negative yards on Friday night against NC State, which followed the Georgia Tech game where they finished with a season-high 13. While it wasn’t all their fault, Maye was under the most pressure that he has been under all season long on Friday night, as the Wolfpack registered 28 total pressures, the most that any opponent has had this season against the Tar Heels. Jack Bicknell Jr. has done a good job at turning this unit around this season, but these past two weeks have resembled a year ago and as a result this offense has struggled to move the ball.
Placekicking has been a major issue for the Tar Heels ever since ‘Field Goal Jesus’ (aka Nick Weiler) left campus after the 2016 season. Entering this season, the Tar Heels had missed 40 field goal attempts in the last five seasons, a number that was tied for the most in all of the FBS during that time. While kicking hasn’t been a major issue for the team this year, it was on Friday night when it mattered the most. Burnette missed two field goals, including the one that ultimately lost them the game, both of which came from 35 yards or closer. Burnette had missed two field goals entering the game, but he had made every kick that the team needed him to make up to that point. However, on Friday night, when the team needed him the most, he couldn’t get it done. Now, they need him to recollect himself quickly with two more tough games remaining to close out the season.
The biggest thing plaguing this Tar Heel defense right now is the play of the defensive line. For the sixth time this season, the group failed to register double-digit pressures on the quarterback, allowing for a second straight fourth string quarterback to pick this defense apart at times. The team had just one sack on the night, meaning that they had just ten in the final nine games of the season. Even though this group is certainly handicapped a bit by injuries, there is enough pure talent here based on how they have recruited to get more production than they have.
When it comes to who is responsible for those struggles, the players hold some of the blame, but with the number of different guys who have failed to live up to expectations, coaching has to be the main blame. It felt like coming into the season, Cross needed to prove something and he has instead taken a major step back. At this point, it is obvious that the Tar Heels need a change here.
Both Cam’Ron Kelly and Giovanni Biggers were banged up in Friday’s game, which opened the door for the duo of Will Hardy and Don Chapman to step up. With them in there, this was probably the most secure that the safety spots have felt in about a year and a half and that is not great news for either Kelly or Biggers, who have started every game so far this season. At the least, there should be more rotation back there on Saturday night and the staff should seriously consider rolling with the Chapman-Hardy duo until they give you a reason to take them off the field.
There were a lot of strong performances in the Tar Heel secondary on Friday night, but none better than the one from Boykins in the slot. He was a massive part of completely neutralizing NC State’s leading receiver coming in, Thayer Thomas, who had just two catches for two yards out of the slot. Boykins was targeted just four times and while three of those were caught, he allowed just 25 yards total in coverage. He combined that with six total tackles, including one tackle for loss, for his best game since the season opener against Florida A&M. This was big for Boykins, who had been picked on in coverage throughout the season and the hope is that this will carry over into Saturday against another talented slot receiver, Antonio Williams.
Duck exited the game late in the third quarter with an upper body injury, but prior to that, he was having yet another nice game that builds on what has been a strong second half of the season for him. He looked great in man coverage again, allowing just four catches for 35 yards outside of the play early when he fell down in his backpedal and registering another impressive pass break up. Duck has proven his value down the stretch and the hope is that he will be available on Saturday to continue his success.
Cavazos started opposite Duck with Tony Grimes out of the lineup and looked rather serviceable in his first career start. He allowed four of his six targets to be caught for 60 yards, but he made a really nice pass break up in man coverage against Devin Carter in the 4th quarter. He wasn’t perfect, but this was a game that should give the staff more confidence in using him as a rotational option in the final two games of the season.
Allen was forced into action in the 4th quarter after Duck exited and he more than held his own. He allowed one of his two targets to be caught, a play where he dropped the receiver for a five yards loss. The other target was a beautiful pass break up on a fade pattern in a goal-to-go situation early in the 4th quarter right after he entered the game. I wouldn’t expect to see Allen starting on Saturday unless both Grimes and Duck are unable to go, but he proved on Friday night that he does deserve some more reps as a rotational option.
Both of the backup safeties played well on Friday night, but Hardy played what might have been the best game that we have seen a Tar Heel safety play this year. In 35 coverage reps, Hardy was targeted just one time, a pass that wasn’t caught, and he had a nice day tackling day for himself, racking up three, including two solos. Following this performance on Friday, I find it hard to believe that he shouldn’t get the chance to at least start this game on Saturday night, especially when you combine it with what we have seen from the other safeties so far this season.
It was hard to find much to be positive about with this offense after Friday night’s loss, but Green deserves a lot of credit. After missing the Georgia Tech game with an upper body injury, he returned to catch eight of his eleven targets for 67 yards and a touchdown at the end of regulation in the back of the end that sent the game to overtime. Green showed just how valuable he was to this offense on Friday and they will need him to be big again on Saturday in an effort to get this offense rolling once again.