The Tar Heels 2021 season was one that many had high expectations for but Saturday’s loss to the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in Atlanta may have dashed the hopes of a special season. Now, the Tar Heels are left searching for answers as they come back home for three straight game where they will hope to get the season turned back in the right direction to salvage Year 3 of the Mack Brown 2.0 era in Chapel Hill. Here is who and what is trending up and down as they head towards Saturday’s meeting with rival Duke.
⇩ACC Coastal Hopes
The loss to Virginia Tech put the Tar Heels behind early in the Coastal, but it was one that many felt the team could recover from, especially with the struggles that the Hokies have had since that game in out-of-conference play. However, this loss does some major damage to the hopes of winning the division. Going forward, the Tar Heels will likely need to be perfect in conference play and will need help from everyone else in the division, who now will need to lose at least two games, while both Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech will need to finish with at least three losses in conference. While this is far from impossible, especially this year in the ACC, the Tar Heels are now in even less control of their own destiny and the margin for era is now completely gone.
After back-to-back historic performance against Georgia State and Virginia, the Tar Heels junior quarterback had his second straight rough showing on the road on Saturday night. While he did throw for 306 yards and two touchdowns, he fumbled the ball three times on the night and missed some open reads down the field as he seemed to get rattled behind an offensive line that failed to give him much protection throughout the night. Trying to do too much is something that has been a problem for Howell at times throughout his career and he will have to avoid this issue popping up again if the Tar Heels want to get this season back on track.
The Tar Heel defense did a good job of keeping the team in the game but fell apart in the second half when they just simply weren’t able to stop Jeff Sims and the Yellow Jackets rushing attack. The Tar Heel defense allowed 313 yards, including 201 yards on the ground, in the final two quarters on Saturday and couldn’t seem to come up with a key stop when they needed it. In the postgame, Jeremiah Gemmel said that the team wasn’t prepared for Jeff Sims, something that is unacceptable in and of itself with the fact that Sims was fully healthy and was expected to play coupled with the struggles that the Tar Heels have had under Bateman at slowing down mobile quarterbacks. Gemmel also mentioned that the team was having issues with the signals on the field, but when Bateman was asked about it in the press conference on Monday, he simply dismissed it as something that he hadn’t heard. These are some concerning quotes that coming out right now regarding this defense and it’s on Bateman to get these sorts of things figured out as soon as possible for a defense that is supposed to be on the rise.
The Tar Heel offensive line did anything that they wanted against the Virginia Cavaliers in their Week 3 matchup and that was with three of the team’s five starters in the unit banged up and not starting. On Saturday night, the team went back to and stuck with the five starters from a year ago and it backfired. The unit somehow had an even worse showing in this one than they did in the season opener, shouldering the load for a Tar Heel offense that finished the night allowing thirteen tackles for loss and eight sacks to a Georgia Tech defensive front that was the definition of lackluster coming in. The fact that the staff stuck with the same group that was struggling up front for as long as they did was frustrating, especially when the rotational options came in and sparked the first signs of life for the unit all night. For this offense to have any chance of being the consistent force that this team needs it to be, this group simply has to be better than they have been in the first third of the season.
Anderson has been the offensive lineman that has struggled the most when he has been in the games this season and that continued on Saturday. He was beat consistently inside, mainly by Georgia Tech defensive tackle Djimon Brooks, who caused problems all night for the Tar Heel offense. It’s impossible to quantify how much of his struggles are due to the injury issue that has lingered into the season for him, but right now, Quiron Johnson is the better option at center.
Asante had another rough outing on Saturday night as his early season struggles continued. He was out of position more than a few times and took some bad angles to the ball carrier, leading to some important missed tackles. The biggest one of the night came when he missed an open field tackle against Sims that resulted in a 38 yard gain and led to the first touchdown of the second half for the Yellow Jackets. Combine his struggles with the emergence of Cedric Gray and there is a good chance that his role could continue to be reduced over the next few weeks.
The struggles for Chandler on Saturday night were far from being all on him, but he did take a significant step back from his career performance against Virginia. He carries the ball seventeen times on Saturday for an average of just 2.9 yards per carry. The offensive line has to do a better job of providing him running lanes, but the Tar Heels need Chandler to produce for them, especially with both D.J. Jones and Caleb Hood both slowed by injury issues.
Morales' stock has been climbing slowly all season and it took a big leap on Saturday night down in Atlanta. Morales may have had the most complete night of all of the Tar Heel pass catchers, hauling in all seven of his targets for 66 yards and a touchdown. The Tar Heel offense is still in search of reliable, consistent options to pair alongside Josh Downs and Morales is emerging one of those.
Murphy had a strong performance for the Tar Heels defensive front on Saturday night, especially in the first half. He finished the night with four total tackles, one tackle for a loss and one sack and was wreaking havoc against the Georgia Tech offensive line. The Tar Heels have had a defensive lineman in each game this season that has stepped up and made a major contribution. Now it’s about getting those players to become more consistent and string together multiple solid performances in a row, something that they are hoping can begin with Murphy.
Simmons has gotten off to a rather quiet start to the 2021 season, but Saturday was a big night for him. He caught three of his five targets for 110 yards, including a 63 yard bomb from Howell in the fourth quarter that helped to keep the Tar Heels in the game, at least for the time being. Simmons showed some signs of finally being the depth threat that this offense sorely needs right now on Saturday night and the hope is that this performance can finally jump start his season.