Saturday night was not a good night for the Tar Heels on the road at Virginia in another poor performance in primetime. A bevy of mistakes and the inability to stop the run was the difference in an inexcusable 44-41 loss that dropped the Tar Heels to 4-2 on the season and out of the top 25 in the latest Associated Press poll. We take a look at who’s trending up and who’s trending down as the Tar Heels turn towards the rivalry meeting with Duke this Saturday in Kenan Stadium.
While it’s difficult to crucify Bateman too much, it is obvious that this defense has taken a step back in recent weeks. Injuries have definitely played a role, but it feels like Bateman hasn’t quite been able to make the adjustments that he could a year ago. The Tar Heels have primarily gone with a 2-4-5 base this season, which was meant to get the most talent and athleticism on the field. This demands the type of players that this defense had a year ago on the interior of the defensive line that could cover multiple gaps and this unit just doesn’t have those types of players available to them right now. Last year, Bateman talked about how him and his staff had to make adjustments to their scheme based on the players that they had in place. This year, it feels like that hasn’t been the case, especially since the injuries have kicked in. That might not be the case, but one thing is for sure and that is that the Tar Heels have to be able to find a way to slow down running quarterbacks, which have just torn this defense apart so far this year. We’ll see if any adjustments will be made going forward from Bateman and his guys just like they were able to do late last season.
Surratt finished the night with 10 total tackles, but he had a few missed tackles in the open field once again that raised concern. On each of the first two drives of the night, Surratt was over aggressive and took a poor angle, leading to a 23-yard rushing touchdown for Virginia quarterback Brennan Armstrong and a 71-yard touchdown pass on a swing pass out of the backfield. Taking bad angles has been a recurring issue for Surratt in three of the last four games and when he has struggled, so has the defense as a whole. This defense seems to go as Surratt goes and they simply need him to be a more consistent tackler down the stretch.
One of the biggest issues for the Tar Heel defense in the two losses this season has been the fact that they’ve been dominated in the trenches. The group simply hasn’t been the same since the Boston College game when Raymond Vohasek went down with an injury and mobile quarterbacks have simply destroyed the team so far this season. The group has to do a better job at closing off middle running lanes that quarterbacks have been able to take advantage of so often so far this year and they also must be able to establish more consistent pressure. While the team did finish the night with three sacks, that was the only pressure that the team was really able to generate all night. Getting more pressure with the front four will allow the staff to blitz less to get pressure and take some of the load off of a secondary that is banged up.
The Tar Heels’ senior outside linebacker played 66 defensive snaps on Saturday night, but struggled to make any sort of impact in those reps. Hopper finished with just one total tackle and continued his struggles in run defense. Hopper had a great fall camp to win the starting job, but he just hasn’t been able to transfer that success onto the field so far this season.
Groves has seen his offensive and punt return reps heavily decrease so far this season, but got a chance to return a key punt late in the first half. After not fumbling a single time a year ago as the Tar Heels returner for most punts that were deep in their own territory, he muffed this extremely important punt. In a year where his reps have been cut, this one really hurts Groves in his quest to regain some of that playing time.
For the second straight season, Brown had a career day against the Cavaliers in a loss. He caught 11 of his 13 targets for 240 yards, the most receiving yards in a game this season by a Power 5 wide receiver. He found the endzone three times on Saturday after entering the game with just three receiving touchdowns all season entering the game. In his last two games against Virginia, Brown has caught 17 passes for 442 yards and six touchdowns. Not too shabby.
While Howell’s one blunder was a big one, he had a career day that is hard to ignore. He finished the night 23 of 28 for a career high 443 yards passing and four touchdowns. Howell played one of the best games of his career in this one, but the defense and special team’s ineptitude kept it from being enough for a victory.