Saturday night was arguably the most important game of the season for the Tar Heels as they looked to take down a Virginia Cavaliers team that had beat them each of the last four years. The Tar Heels raced out to a 17-point lead before Virginia punched them in the mouth to take the 28-24 lead into the locker room. The Tar Heels would respond out of the locker room, however, retaking the lead on the first drive of the second half and never looking back on the way to a 59-39 victory. Here are the biggest takeaways from the pivotal win for the Tar Heels.
Sam Howell Needs to Be Back in the Heisman Race
The Tar Heels gunslinger had a rough start to the season against Virginia Tech, but his response has been historic. For the second straight game, Howell threw for 300 yards and ran for 100 while finding the endzone another five times. With that performance, Howell became the first quarterback in Tar Heels history with back-to-back 300+ and 100+ and became just the second quarterback since 2004 to accomplish that feat. With a lot of the other preseason favorites struggling, if Howell can lead this Tar Heels team to a Coastal championship, he might still have a chance.
Offensive Line Took a Major Step Forward
The Tar Heels offensive line may have started the game without three of their top offensive lineman, but this was as good as the unit has looked this season. The unit plowed the way for a ridiculous night on the ground where the team ran for 392 yards and allowed just two tackles for loss and one sack, never giving in like Mandy Alonso said they would. Ed Montilus and William Barnes both had strong nights in their first starts of the season and Marcus McKethan was tremendous in run blocking situations. With the way that this starting group played tonight, there might need to be some discussions about what the reps look like going forward.
This Running Game Looked Very Promising
With some better blocking in front of them, this Tar Heel running game was simply tremendous. Ty Chandler had the best game of his entire career, running for 198 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries. Caleb Hood showed a lot of promise, as well, rushing for his 66 yards and a touchdown on nine carries. That combined with the strong performance that Howell had, thanks to the coaching staff being more aggressive with the designed run calls, to lead the Tar Heels to 392 yards and 8.3 yards per carry on Saturday night.
Pass Defense Was Concerning to Say the Least
The Tar Heels were torched by Brennan Armstrong and the Cavaliers on Saturday night to the tune of 554 yards and four touchdowns. Just like in the past few meetings, the Cavaliers went to work against the Tar Heels defense in the intermediate and deep passing games and found plenty of success, especially in the first half. The team struggled in both man and zone situations all night and had what would have been some big turnovers that they left on the field. This is something that shouldn’t come as much of a shock with some of the lapses that the first two quarterbacks the Tar Heels faced just couldn’t take advantage of, but this unit has to be more effective moving forward. What would help would be some more consistent pressure on the quarterback, something that the Tar Heels did a better job of on Saturday but still has to be better. The good news is, there may not be a team that throws the football as good as Brennan Armstrong is throwing it right now on the schedule for the Tar Heels this season.
Josh Downs Might Already Be The Best Receiver in the ACC
Downs continued his extremely successful start to this season on Saturday, catching eight passes for the third straight game, turning them into 203 yards and two touchdowns. There is no doubt that Downs is the best receiver in the Coastal, but at this point, it’s hard to make the case that he is not the best in the ACC right now. Justyn Ross and Joseph Ngata have a case as well, but with how productive Josh Downs has been out of the gate, it’s hard to take anyone else over him.