The Tar Heels win over the Virginia Cavaliers was a humongous one for the direction of this 2021 team and this program as a whole. The Tar Heel offense went crazy, totaling 699 yards of offense, including 392 rushing yards in the 59-39 victory that gave them the first win over Virginia since 2016. The team will now turn their attention to the Mercedes Benz Dome in Atlanta where they will look to continue to build momentum as they face Georgia Tech for the first time in two years. We give you a look at who and what is trending up and down around the Tar Heels as they prepare for their second road trip of the season.
Howell put together another historic performance on Saturday night while leading the Tar Heels to the important victory. For the second straight week, Howell threw for at least 300 yards (307) and ran for at least 100 (112), becoming just the second quarterback since 2004 to accomplish that feat, joining 2016 Heisman winner Lamar Jackson. Outside of the interception in the second quarter, this was a perfect game from Howell, who has to be putting himself right back in the Heisman Trophy conversation if he can keep this up and the Tar Heels can keep rolling.
In the first two games of the season, we saw a few flashes from Chandler, but he broke out on Saturday with the best performance of his entire collegiate career. He toted the ball 20 times in this one, running for 198 yards and two touchdowns, leading the Tar Heel rushing game that finished the night with 392 yards. Chandler was finally able to get into open space and showed off that quickness and toughness that Mack Brown raved about in the offseason. That is a great sign for this Tar Heel offense that is at its best when they can run the football consistently.
What else can the Tar Heels ask for from this young man? Downs was simply electric with the football in his hands on Saturday night, as he caught eight passes for the third straight game and turned that into some outstanding production. His 203 receiving yards made it three straight meetings with the Cavaliers that the Tar Heels have had a receiver finish with 200 or more yards receiving. Two of those eight catches went to the endzone for touchdowns, giving him a touchdown for the third consecutive game and fourth straight overall dating back to last year’s Orange Bowl. Right now, it’s hard not to consider Downs one of the best receivers in the country.
Ty Chandler wasn’t the only Tar Heel running back that had a big performance on Saturday night. Hood, who the coaching staff raved about this fall had been quiet in the first two games of the season, carried the ball just five times for 16 yards in those two contests. He broke out on Saturday night, though, finishing with 66 yards on the nine carries that he saw and scoring his first collegiate touchdown on a five-yard scamper in the third quarter that would put the Tar Heels back up double-digits. This is very encouraging for a Tar Heel backfield that is for others to emerge alongside Chandler in the backfield.
This unit had struggled mightily in the first two weeks of the season, but with their third different starting group in as many weeks, it appears that the Tar Heels may have found some solutions at least for the time being. The starting group of Asim Richards-Ed Montilus-Quiron Johnson-Marcus McKethan-William Barnes had plenty of success in both run and pass blocking situations. McKethan had a phenomenal night in the run game, as did Montilus and Johnson in the middle of that offensive line. The unit as a whole combined to allow just two tackles for loss, one sack and one quarterback hit, all major upgrades from the prior weeks. Following this performance, the Tar Heels need to take a serious look at this unit to determine what the best five is for this team and how they can sustain the success.
Rucker got the start on Saturday night and showed why with an outstanding performance. He was easily the Tar Heels’ most productive member of a defensive front that struggled to get consistent pressure throughout the night, finishing with five total tackles, two tackles for loss, two sacks and one forced fumble. Rucker continues to produce every time he is on the field and he made a major impact once again in this one. It’s time for him to become a full-time starter moving forward.
Gray got his first career start on Saturday night at inside linebacker in place of Eugene Asante because of a coach’s decision and it paid off big time. He had a strong showing, finishing with six total tackles, second most on the night for the Tar Heels, five of which were solos. Gray also looked good in coverage, coming up with a huge pass breakup in the endzone to prevent a would-be touchdown in the third quarter that would have cut the lead back down to three. With how well he played, it’s going to take a lot for him to lose that starting job, at least for the time being.
Conley continued his strong start to this season with another strong showing on Saturday night. He finished with five total tackles and a quarterback hit, but his big play of the night came on the interception of Virginia quarterback Brennan Armstrong in late in the third quarter that gave the Tar Heels the football right back after they had driven to extend their back lead to 14. Conley was beat over the top once on a big play, but it’s hard to be too critical of a guy who has performed as well as he has so far this year and one that is playing with broken bones in his hand.
As a whole, the Tar Heel pass defense had a rough night. The Cavaliers tore them up for 553 yards, 363 came in the first half, and four touchdowns, doing the majority of their damage in the intermediate and deep passing games. The staff appeared to bounce back and forth between zone and man coverage throughout the night searching for a solution, but the Cavaliers were still able to make plays when they needed to. Just like in the first game of the season against Virginia Tech, the Tar Heels struggled with some 50/50 balls despite being in solid position most of the night. The secondary wasn’t helped as consistently as they would have liked even though the stats may tell you they did. Armstong looked relatively comfortable for the majority of the night with just the occasional rush getting to him. In order to avoid a repeat of this performance, there needs to be more consistency from both elements of this pass defense moving forward.
The member of that secondary that had the roughest night was Chapman. Even though he led the team in tackles, he left some on the field and he had a couple of interceptions that he had thrown right to him that he failed to come down with, as well. Chapman continued his struggles in coverage, leading to plenty of success for the Cavaliers in the slot on Saturday night. Going forward, the Tar Heels need Chapman to improve or they may need someone else to step up and provide some help at the nickel spot.
Gray got the surprise start over Asante on Saturday night and while Asante still had himself a solid night, it seems hard pressed that he will be able to regain the starting job next week. The good news is, there is a good chance that he will still play some significant reps for the team moving forward as he did on Saturday, but this is not what many envisioned for him heading into the season.