The Tar Heels 2021 season is one that is filled with lofty expectations and goals, but both of those took a blow out of the gates on Friday night. In a game that resembled the struggles of last season’s losses to Florida State and Virginia, the Tar Heels simply couldn’t capitalize on the opportunities that they were given, falling short on the road to the Virginia Tech Hokies 17-10. Here is a look at the takeaways from tonight’s extremely disappointing loss.
The Tar Heels Beat Themselves
Virginia Tech was dominant offensively in the first half, gashing the Tar Heels for 95 yards in the first quarter, despite that being a major focus for this defense coming in. In the second half, though, the defense warmed to the task, allowing just 93 yards of total offense and three points to the Hokies, giving the Tar Heel offense plenty of opportunities to come away with the win. Turnovers and major penalties kept that from happening, though, as quarterback Sam Howell threw three interceptions, the most that he has ever thrown in a game with the Tar Heels, two of which came in the fourth quarter. The Tar Heels on paper seemed much more disciplined than in the past couple of years in this matchup, but two of three ineligible man calls, which were drive killers, were declined. Limiting the mistakes was one of the biggest keys to this first game of the season, a game that, as Mack Brown said, is typically lost more than it is won. The Tar Heels mistakes were a big reason they lost this game.
Offensive Line Performance Raises Some Major Questions
There was so much talk around the Tar Heel offensive line this offseason because of the fact that they returned all five starters from a year ago, but this unit simply looked awful on Friday night. Quiron Johnson had to start the game at center because of the Brian Anderson injury, and had some moments where he struggled, but the rest of the unit didn’t fare much better, especially in pass protection. Quarterback Sam Howell was sacked six times on the night and hurried four times and pressure was on Howell nearly every time he dropped back to throw, primarily on crucial downs. The move to switch Joshua Ezeudu and Asim Richards on the left side was a head-scratching one, especially with the fact that Richards really struggled playing inside. This looked like a unit that was just searching for answers, ones that they are hoping could be found once Anderson returns. For this offense to take the steps forward to becoming a lethal one once again, this unit needs to be one of the best in college football.
Wide Receivers are Still a Work in Progress
Replacing the historic production that the Tar Heels skill position group put up on offense was going to be a challenge and that was very obvious on Friday night. The running backs actually had themselves a pretty solid night, as both Ty Chandler and D.J. Jones produced when they had the football in their hands. The wide receivers, however, were a different story outside of Josh Downs. The rest of the unit simply couldn't create separation all night and when they did, they struggled to catch the football. Emery Simmons and Garrett Walston saw the most targets from the remaining group and both had some crucial drops that will need to be corrected going forward for this team to have success. Antoine Green was also relatively quiet and Justin Olson, one of the standouts of the fall had a ball simply ripped away from him for an interception. This is a unit that has to grow up over the next few weeks before they hit the meat of their schedule in the month of October.
Sam Howell’s Heisman Hopes May Be Dashed Already
While it definitely was all his fault, Howell’s Heisman hopes took a major blow on Friday night. After throwing just 14 interceptions in his first two seasons under center at Carolina, he threw three last night, two of which came in the fourth quarter after not turning the football over a single time in his first two years in the final stanza. This is not something that people should overreact to in terms of his ability to lead this team to success this season, but the blow that this levies to his Heisman hopes is significant.
Defense Looked Better in the Second Half But It Wasn’t a Great Start
As we said above, the Tar Heel defense looked much better in the second half than they did in the first half, but that first half was a bit concerning with some of the issues primarily on third down and in run defense. The Hokies were 6-7 on third downs in the first half, but that was in large part due to the success that they allowed on first and second down. The defensive line was pushed around early on, leading to the team to rotate nearly the entire three-deep in while attempting to get some push up front. The missed tackles were something that popped back up early on and led to a couple of drives being extended and a few big plays, as well. The good news is that the defense looked much better in the second half and provides a little bit of optimism around a disappointing outcome in this one. The only thing that may be concerning long term was how much the front seven struggled early on, but this is a group that has the talent and depth to hopefully find some solutions to avoid those slow starts going forward.
This Team Was Overrated
Mack Brown said this in the post game and he, unfortunately, is right. Part of this was on him and his staff, which was out coached, especially early on, in Friday night’s affair. Despite the staff focusing on preparing the team for the environment and preaching to remember what happened last year in the matchups with Florida State and Virginia, the team looked rattled and unprepared out of the gate and got in the early hole. There was a lot of confidence in the fact that the inexperienced skill position players had the talent to come in and make enough plays to get out of Blacksburg with a win, something that clearly wasn’t the case. Neither was the thought that the veteran offensive line would be a big advantage for this Tar Heel offense. Last night was clearly not a great showing from the Tar Heels, but the good news is that that probably doesn’t represent what this team will be going forward. Still, this is a team that right now is not as good as we thought they could be this season.