For the first time in his fourteen years on the Tar Heel sidelines, Mack Brown left a trip to Charlottesville with a victory. For a third consecutive game, the Tar Heels came out of the halftime break trailing, but another big second half offensively allowed them to extend their winning streak to five straight and get to the doorstep of booking their trip to Charlotte for an ACC Championship appearance. Here is a look at our takeaways from the Tar Heels’ 31-28 win over Virginia on Saturday.
Nothing Will Ever Be Easy in Charlottesville
The Tar Heels have a lot of road venues that have given them fits and Charlottesville is one of them. Similar to the team’s last meeting there, the Tar Heels were clearly the better team heading in, but they got all they could handle from a Virginia offense that was already struggling entering this game and was without some key offensive weapons with their top three receivers and leading rusher. Behind one of the worst offensive lines in the Power 5, the Cavaliers were able to get whatever they wanted on the ground and converted some long third downs through the air on the way to scoring 28 points, the second-most they have scored this entire season. The Tar Heel defense certainly deserves some of the blame, but these are the type of things that happen when the Tar Heels play at Virginia, especially under Mack Brown. Believe it or not, just escaping with the win was an accomplishment for this program.
Defensive Line Really Missed the Injured Starters
Last week’s second half against Pittsburgh may have been the best the defensive line has looked this entire season, but that did not carry over to this one. Their struggles shouldn’t be that shocking considering the fact that the Tar Heels have lost three of the unit’s four starters for the season, but who it came against was certainly a little mystifying. Virginia entered this game with arguably the worst offensive line in the entire Power 5, but dominated from the word go, especially on the ground where the Tar Heels allowed 186 yards to a running game that was averaging just 104.6 rushing per game in conference play. The lack of pressure, especially on third down, allowed Brennan Armstrong time to stand in the pocket and find the holes in the zone, making it easy for the Cavaliers to methodically move the ball up and down the field the entire day. It’s hard to be too frustrated with the unit because of the sheer amount of injuries that they are dealing with, but there is still plenty of talent here and they simply have to be better than they were on Saturday in the remaining games.
Elijah Green is Someone This Team Can Trust
The Tar Heels entered Saturday with a major question mark in the backfield after the injury to Caleb Hood, but they exited with a clear answer in the form of Elijah Green. In his first career start, he showed that he is more than capable of carrying the load down the stretch of the season, running for 91 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries. It was a bit of a surprise to see him take the only carries in the game for the running backs, but with how hard he ran and the downhill mindset that was on display the entire day, it was hard to argue against giving him the football. Green took the most of the opportunity that he got against the Cavaliers and it seems very plausible that he can be to this team what Britsh Brooks was to the team a year ago down the stretch.
Josh Downs Deserves More Talk
When people are talking about Tar Heel football right now, the conversation typically revolves around Drake Maye, as it should. However, what Josh Downs is doing as an encore to last year isn’t being talked about enough. Saturday’s performance may change that. Downs caught 15 of his 16 targets for 166 yards and a touchdown, combining with Maye to basically carry this team to victory on a day where the rest of the receiving corps was held in check. This performance puts him firmly on track to reach the 1,000-yard mark for this season, as well as double-digit touchdowns, despite missing time early in the season and playing in an offense that has spread the football around a lot more than a year ago. While he might not end up being a first or second team All-American, he needs to be someone that gets the national attention that other top receivers in the country do.
It’s About Winning, Not How, At This Point For the Tar Heels
With Saturday’s win, the Tar Heels are now 8-1 on the season, remain undefeated in conference play and sit in firm control of the ACC Coastal. Saturday also officially ended the Tar Heels' chances to make the College Football Playoff which were already slim to none heading in. The close win for the Tar Heels over a less-than-stellar Virginia team combined with the losses from Wake Forest and Clemson last night will be too much to overcome. Even with that being the case, the Tar Heels did what they had to do on Saturday to continue what is a special season in Chapel Hill. For the first time since 1996, the program has won five road games in a season and is undefeated away from Kenan Stadium just a year after losing every single game in other venues. Yesterday’s win was yet another one by one-possession, their fifth such win of the season which follows a stretch where they won just five in four seasons. This program has taken a major step already so far this season and they have a chance to accomplish plenty of other lofty goals before the season is over, all of which simply involve them continuing to win. For this 2022 Tar Heels, it’s not about how you win, it’s that you win.