There was a lot of hype for the Tar Heels entering 2021, and rightfully so with a Heisman hopeful at quarterback, talent at the skill positions, and a defense that returned 10 of its starters from the Orange Bowl. What made the hype believable was that Carolina was returning its entire starting offensive line, and after another successful recruiting class, depth at the defensive line. The trenches which really hindered UNC last season, was believed to be much improved, was going to be a deciding factor if this program was ready to take the next step under Mack Brown. Friday’s 17-10 loss at Virginia Tech, a game that Hokies controlled the line of the scrimmage, still leaves us wondering when that next step will be taken, as Carolina’s College Football Playoff chances are almost nonexistent, and a trip to the ACC Championship Game is in question if they can’t get better upfront.
Even though UNC lost Javonte Williams, Michael Carter, Dyami Brown, and Dazz Newsome to the NFL, the offense wasn’t expected to regress that much, because they returned all 5 starters from last season, to go along with much improved depth. Brian Anderson wasn’t able to go, and his absence was clearly felt, with Quiron Johnson filling in his spot. Johnson, who was able to hold his own last year whenever he was called upon, wasn’t able to do so against the Hokies front. From the very first possession, UNC wasn’t able to establish control at the line of scrimmage, which led to the offense never got into a rhythm. Sam Howell was sacked for a career best 6 times while being hurried and additional 4 times. In addition to the 6 sacks allowed, Virginia Tech also registered 9 tackles for loss, as they lived in the backfield. Carolina did replace players upfront, but it never really mattered. UNC was able to muster 146 yards on the ground, behind Ty Chandler’s 68 yards on 10 carries, but there were times that their best offense was Sam Howell using his legs. The good news for UNC is this they get Georgia State at home, which should allow this offense to get into a rhythm before they welcome in Virginia the following week.
As disappointing as the offensive line was for Carolina, the same could be said for a defensive line, that was the talk of fall camp for the Tar Heels, especially in that first half. From the onset, Virginia Tech lined up and ran the ball right at Carolina, until they could stop it, they couldn’t it. Ray Vohaskek who has gotten a lot of attention in the preseason for national awards, wasn’t even a factor only registering 2 tackles. Like the offensive line, Tim Cross substituted guys on his defensive line, and he may have found something with Jahvaree Ritzie, who only made 2 tackles, but was a difference maker. The same goes for Kristian Varner, who like Ritzie only registered 2 stops, was making a difference upfront for the Tar Heels. Tomon Fox registered half a sack to move past Lawrence Taylor on the all-time sack list, but besides that, it was another no show from him. As has been the case really since Butch Davis was run out of Chapel Hill, Carolina struggled to get off blocks and make plays at the point of attack, and never allowed the linebackers to fill holes, and make plays, until Raheem Blackshear and Jalen Holston were at the second level. Carolina was much better in the second half, but the damage was done in the first half, and it was too much to overcome. Like the offensive line, UNC can rebound from this performance next week against Georgia State in Kenan Stadium.