The Tar Heels picked up a big win on Saturday over their rivals from right down the road, the Duke Blue Devils, that the team is hoping will be the turning point of the season. It was far from the most dominant performance that the team has had under Mack Brown, but it was definitely the most complete performance of the season for the 2021 Tar Heels. They will now hope to carry that over into the game next week against Florida State as they hope to give Mack Brown his first-ever win over his alma mater.
Downs continued his amazing tear to start the season on Saturday against the Blue Devils. For the fifth consecutive game to begin the season, he caught eight passes, turning those catches into 168 yards and a touchdown. He had a couple of drops, including one in the endzone late in the second quarter that prevented his day from being an even bigger one, as he continues an absolutely torrid receiving pace out of the gate. If he plays at this level the rest of the season, he could put together one of the best cases in the country for the Biletnikoff Trophy at the end of the year.
The Tar Heels defensive line as a whole had a tremendous showing on Saturday, but the leader of that group was Myles Murphy. The sophomore defensive end was a wrecking ball on Saturday, leading all members of the defensive line/pass rusher unit with five total tackles, 2.5 tackles for a loss and a sack. This is the second straight strong outing from Murphy and he now has himself in a position to become that force that the Tar Heels are needing on the defensive front as they look to take the next step as a defense.
Chandler didn’t have the most productive day on the ground for the Tar Heel but he made his impact felt for the Tar Heels out of the backfield. He ran for 53 yards and a touchdown on his 12 carries that he received on Saturday, still struggling to find many running lanes behind that underwhelming offensive line. However, he had one of the biggest plays of the day, jump-starting the Tar Heel offense in the first half with a 75 yard touchdown reception that opened the scoring after a slow start. Chandler added another catch for 12 yards later in the game, showing that there is some value for him as a receiver out of the backfield. This is an aspect that the Tar Heel offense needs to utilize going forward.
Gemmel has been a bit quiet to begin his senior season in Chapel Hill, but he had a great game on Saturday against the Blue Devils. He finished the game with five total tackles, the most amongst the linebacking corps on Saturday, and 1.5 tackles for a loss. He also played a major role in the Tar Heels’ ability to get after the quarterback in this one, failing to register a sack, but causing plenty of havoc in the reps where he rushed the passer.
Kelly was named the defensive player of the game by Mack Brown on Monday and for good reason. He finished the game with a team-high seven total tackles, coming up huge for the Tar Heels in run defense against one of the nation’s best running backs. He also pulled down what may have been the most important turnover of the day, intercepting Gunnar Holmberg on the second drive of the third quarter, one that followed a one-play, 80-yard touchdown drive for Duke that got them on the board and gave them plenty of momentum.to start this second half. Without that interception, there is no telling where the direction of the game would have gone.
Kelly wasn’t the only safety that had a big day on Saturday for the Tar Heels against the Blue Devils. Morrison had the other impactful defensive play in this one with his scoop-and-score in the second quarter where he alerting picked a fumble that could have easily been thought of as a forward pass and took it 63 yards to the house. He also added six total tackles to piece together arguably his best performance of the season.
Grimes is another player who had lofty expectations heading into this season but that has quite been as dominant as they thought he could be. Saturday may have been his best all-around performance of the season, as he was a big reason why Holmberg threw for just 104 yards outside of the long touchdown that Duke scored just after halftime. He did a great job shedding blocks throughout the day and tackled very well in open space, finishing the day six total tackles and a tackle for loss.
The Tar Heel offensive line continued to struggle on Saturday against a Duke defensive front that was having their own issues coming in. Both starting tackles really struggled once again with Asim Richards being taken out for the final few drives of the game and the team juggled three centers through the day with Cayden Baker playing his first snaps at center as the starter in this game. The group as a whole allowed five more sacks and ten more tackles for loss bring their totals to 22.0 and 38.0 in categories respectively. At this point, there is no way to deny that this is a major issue for this team and is something that offensive coordinator Phil Longo will have to gameplan around going forward this season.
Another struggling group that Phil Longo is game planning for is the group of outside receivers that continue to struggle. Of the six receivers who took snaps on Saturday out of those two spots, only three of them were targeted and only two caught passes. After showing some positive signs against Georgia Tech, both Emery Simmons and Antoine Green struggled to create separation, especially on the downfield routes. This group needs to be more consistent and at this point giving some of the younger guys looks here might be the best solution.