The Tar Heels hung around on Saturday against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on the road, but were beat down in the second half by the Irish run game in a 44-34 loss that dropped the team to 4-4 on the season. We tell you who and what is trending up or down as the team prepares to welcome in the undefeated Wake Forest Demon Deacons to Chapel Hill.
This Tar Heel defense as a whole continues to trend in the wrong direction. For the first time since Mack Brown took over, there was a Larry Fedora-era feel to the defensive performance with how they played on Saturday night. They were gashed for 293 yards by a struggling Notre Dame rushing attack, including 199 by Kyren Williams alone on the night. For the second straight game, the defense looked worn down in the second half, allowing 234 rushing yards in the second half and 9.6 yards per play in the half as the Fighting Irish pulled away for the ten point win after the Tar Heels took the early third quarter lead. The unit as a whole was pushed around the majority of the night and once again took some bad angles to the football and missed tackles in the open field that were costly, especially on the 91 yard touchdown run that basically broke the Tar Heels back in this game. With these issues continuing to show up week after week and getting worse as the season goes along, there are legitimate questions that need to be asked about the staff and personnel of the unit as we head into the final four games of the regular season.
Conley had arguably his worst game of the season on Saturday night. He registered just one tackle in his 29 snaps on Saturday night and looked to be limited after taking a bad angle to the football on a screen play in the first half that left many people scratching their heads. Conley has been the Tar Heels most consistent overall defensive player this season, but there is no arguing the fact that his performance on Saturday was not his best one.
Chapman had another rough outing on Saturday night as the primary outside corner opposite of Tony Grimes. He was beaten on Jack Coan’s lone touchdown pass of the night, a 50/50 ball that he simply couldn’t make a play on. He was also called for an important pass interference in the fourth quarter that allowed the Irish to drain more time off the clock before they kicked the field goal that extended the lead to ten. With the struggles of both Chapman and Kyler McMichael and Storm Duck still banged up, the Tar Heels appear to have a void at the No. 2 corner spot that they didn’t think that they would have coming into the 2021 season.
⇩Interior Defensive Line
Just like the Tar Heel defensive line unit a year ago, this group was pushed around up front on Saturday. In order for this unit to be successful like they need to be on Saturday night, they needed at least one member of that interior unit to step up and that simply did not happen. Both Myles Murphy and Raymond Vohasek were pushed around (helped by some holds that went uncalled) and this is now the third straight game where neither one has been able to be overly effective. The rotational guys have also been pushed around a bit these last few weeks, but it is really on Vohasek and Murphy to step up because they have proven before that they can get the job done.
Collins played 25 snaps against the Fighting Irish, but struggled to make an impact. He failed to register a tackle despite playing 21 run defense snaps and continued to be non-factor as a pass rusher. The Tar Heels simply need to get better play from their edge rushers going forward and that starts with Collins, who needs to step or continue to see his reps cut.
Howell was outstanding in this one outside of the interception that was an important turnover. Even with that, Howell threw for 341 yards and a touchdown and ran for 101 yards and a touchdown. As was pointed out by many this week, though, Howell has quietly had a tremendous junior season and Saturday was another representation of that. He was the best player on the field on Saturday night and will need to be that once again on Saturday afternoon in Kenan Stadium if the Tar Heels want to have a chance to upset Wake Forest.
For the first time this season, Downs failed to score a touchdown in a game this season on Saturday night, but he was phenomenal once again on Saturday night. He was targeted twelve more times in this game and caught ten of those for 142 yards, showing off his strong route running ability and ability after the catch, which was raved about on the broadcast by former Saints quarterback and current NBC analyst Drew Brees. Downs just continues to strengthen his case to be an All-American receiver at the end of the year and they’ll need him to play like that again on Saturday if they hope to upset the Deacons.
The Tar Heels have been searching for some help on a receiver outside of Josh Downs and on Saturday they got it in the form of Green. He had his second-most productive night of the season, catching five of his eight targets for 83 yards and touchdowns while doing a good job of being able to create separation. Green looks to be the receiver that will be relied on the most outside of Downs with both Khafre Brown and Emery Simmons in the transfer portal. As he showed on Saturday, he’s certainly capable of doing that.
The true freshman got his most extensive action of the season on Saturday night in South Bend and took advantage of it. In his 22 snaps that he took, he was targeted three times, all which he turned into catches and was able to turn into 50 yards receiving. The Tar Heels are looking for weapons to surround Sam Howell down the stretch and Nesbit might be one of those going forward after that strong performance on Saturday.
The Tar Heel offensive line has struggled mightily this entire season and while they weren’t perfect on Saturday either, this group showed some signs of progress in this one. The unit was able to protect Sam Howell well for the most part and did a good job of slowing down one of the nation’s best pass rushers and opened up some nice running lanes for Howell and the running backs throughout the night. The unit still lacks the snap-in, snap-out consistency that they need, but this is at least progress from where they have been this season.