There aren’t many people who believe that “must-win” games exist in September, but when you lose your season opener that happens to be a conference game, and the expectation is to make the conference title game, those scenarios become reality. That is what Carolina was facing last night when they hosted Virginia in the 127 edition of The South’s Oldest Rivalry, as on 0-2 start in ACC play would be hard to overcome, even with the parity in the conference. UNC was looking to end a four game losing streak to the Cavaliers, and after being called soft by a UVA player, there was extra motivation and emotion in Kenan Stadium. After jumping out to a 24-7 lead, Virginia battled back to lead 28-24 at halftime, leaving UNC’s season at a crossroads if they didn’t come back in the second half. They did. Carolina outscored UVA, 35-11 in the second half to earn their first ACC win of the year, and improve their record to 2-1.
UNC hadn’t started their starting five they visualized all summer long, and that trend continued with a starting group that consisted of Asim Richards, Ed Montilus, Quiron Johnson, Marcus McKethan, and William Barnes. Brian Anderson and Joshua Ezeudu both dressed and were able to play but the biggest thing to note was no Jordan Tucker in the starting lineup. How would they respond? You have to remember that in the first two weeks, Carolina hadn’t established the line of scrimmage like they wanted to, keeping the offense from being the best version of itself. That wasn’t the case last night, as UNC did whatever it wanted to, whenever it wanted to, racking up 699 total yards of offense, 307 through the air, and 392 on the ground. Tennessee transfer Ty Chandler had a career night rushing for 198 yards on 20 carries, and two touchdowns. Sam Howell was used more in the running game, and he ran for 112 yards on 15 rushes. Add in 66 more yards from true freshman Caleb Hood, and albeit with a different style the offense was running the ball like they did a season ago. Howell was only sacked once and was given time to get the ball down the field to Josh Downs, whenever Phil Longo dialed up a long pass play. They were more physical than Virginia, and by the second half, their entire front seven was worn down. It will be interesting to see how they manage the starters and the rotation as they get healthy, but they may have found something in last night’s win.
The lack of a pass rush has been what this defense has been missing under Jay Bateman, and that was the case last night. They never made Brennan Armstrong uncomfortable, as he passed for 554 yards despite the loss. While Virginia only managed 21 rushing yards, you knew coming in they wanted to attack in the air, and not creating pressure was disappointing. Kaimon Rucker started, and made the most of it, recording 2 of the team’s 3 sacks, on his way to 5 tackle performance, that included a forced fumble. Tomon Fox recorded the other sack, but has been the theme so far this season, the Tar Heels need more from him, and his brother Tomari. Myles Murphy and Jahvaree Ritzie also made timely plays, as the depth UNC created in the summer is showing up in the fall. As good as the back end of the defense is, and can be, last night proved that they are vulnerable, and Armstrong might not be the best quarterback Carolina will see the rest of the season. Too many times UNC lacks any push up front, and when they do generate penetration, it is too far upfield they essentially take themselves out of the play. I’ve been critical of Stacy Searels and his offensive line responded, it’s time for the defensive line to do the same thing, for this team to become more complete.