The Tar Heels traveled to Charlottesville for a Saturday night meeting with the Virginia Cavaliers last night and came away with one of the more disappointing losses in recent memories. The Tar Heel defense was gashed the entire night by the Cavaliers running game and untimely mistakes led to a bad 44-41 loss to a 1-4 football team. Here is what we learned about the Tar Heels in this awful setback.
There Were Just Too Many Mistakes to Overcome
It’s truly remarkable how many different mistakes the Tar Heels made on Saturday night leading to the defeat. The majority of them came on special teams, a unit that just continues to hinder this 2020 team. Grayson Atkins missed another field goal, granted it was from long distance and Jonathan Kim made his first mistake of the season when he shanked the final kickoff of the game by kicking it out of bounds. The two biggest special teams mistakes were the main differences in the game, however. Shortly before halftime, the Tar Heel defense had just their second stop of the night leading to a Cavalier punt, but Rontavius Groves, who was in for Dazz Newsome for some reason, muffed the punt which was recovered by Virginia. The Cavaliers would turn that turnover into a score, giving them the lead just before halftime. The second big mistake came on the final drive of the game. The Tar Heel defense had yet another stop and on fourth down Virginia decided to fake the punt on their side of the 50. The punt return unit seemed to have the play read, but simply failed to make the stop, leading to the first down that sealed the game. The offense and defense also had huge mistakes of their own that cost them the game. The backwards pass on the final play of the first half led to no points, after the Tar Heels had driven the field in just over a minute to give the team a chance to tie the game just before halftime. Instead, the team went into halftime trailing and Virginia was able to score a touchdown to begin the second half to go up by fourteen. Quarterback Sam Howell made a grave mistake on the ensuing drive, failing to throw the football away while trying to extend a play and fumbling, which was recovered once again by Virginia. The Cavaliers would put another touchdown on the board to extend their lead to 21 at the time, something that the Tar Heels couldn’t recover from. On the defensive side, Trey Morrison and Don Chapman both took inexplicable personal foul penalties, both of which led to points for the Cavaliers.
This Defense Still Has a Lot of Work to Do
Saturday night’s defensive performance has the feeling of a Larry Fedora era defense and let’s just say it wasn’t a good feeling. The Cavaliers rushed for 210 yards in the game, with quarterbacks accounting for 109 of those yards, the most the Tar Heels have allowed to a single quarterback or a group of quarterbacks in a game this season. Similar to loss to Florida State, the unit was constantly bitten by awful tackling angles and the failure to be able to bring players down on first contact. The Cavaliers were also able to simply dominate the line of scrimmage, something that has emerged as a big problem for the team as the season has gone along. This defense has suffered a lot of key injuries so far this season and the defensive line has a lot of guys playing a big role while being undersized along the defensive line, leading to some regression on the defensive side of the football as a whole. However, every defense has had their trials and tribulations in a season where COVID-19 prevented them from being able to make normal progressions in the offseason, so no one is feeling sorry for them. The unit simply has to be better than they were on Saturday night or it could be a rough finish to the season.
Howell and Brown Thrive Against Virginia
This Tar Heels quarterback-wide receiver duo of Sam Howell and Dyami Brown have simply torn this Virginia secondary to shreds. Brown had his second straight 200 yard receiving game against the Cavaliers on Saturday, catching 11 of his 13 targets for 240 yards and three touchdowns, which was a career best performance for the junior pass catcher. Howell had a career performance of his own in this one, completing 23 of 28 passes for 443 yards and four touchdowns, his second straight game with 350+ passing yards and four touchdowns against the Cavaliers. If only they could get some help from their defense when they face Virginia.
The Tar Heels Officially Have a Problem with Virginia
For the fourth straight year, the Tar Heels have suffered a setback to the Cavaliers, a team that prior to that, the Tar Heels had simply dominated since the turn of the century. In each of the past two seasons, the Cavaliers have seemed to just play with more motivation than the Tar Heels and it’s paid off with two wins in track meets. Virginia was another team that caused the Tar Heels problems during Mack Brown’s first tenure, but those teams were far more talented than these current Cavaliers. If the Tar Heels want to get to an ACC Championship Game, this is a hump that they have to be able to get over.
The Process of Becoming a Consistent Contender is Painful
This game was a great example of how there will be bumps in the road when it comes to becoming a contender year in and year out. The defensive side of the football was the main area that this staff had to overhaul when they took over last year and it’s definitely shown at times. The defensive line still lacks the depth necessary to be a consistent unit and a lot of players are still having to play out of position. On the back end, injuries have forced many guys into bigger roles than they expected so early on in their career and again depth is an issue. The good news is that help is on the way, especially on the defensive line, where the Tar Heels have put together two very strong classes back-to-back and feel confident about their fits in a defense that involves handling multiple gaps. This was a bad performance, no way around it, but there is still plenty of reason to believe that this program has what it takes to become a contender.