North Carolina’s 43-41 loss to Virginia Tech on Saturday revealed a number of things as the Tar Heels try to compete for an ACC Coastal Division title.
But chief among them is that UNC is not good enough to take plays off and still beat the teams left on its schedule. The Tar Heels had multiple opportunities to beat the Hokies, but could not take advantage.
Now, the Tar Heels (3-4, 2-2 ACC) are one game behind Virginia in the Coastal Division standings, and will likely have to win their remaining games if they’re to win the division. They must win three of their final five games to be bowl eligible.
UNC coach Mack Brown and offensive coordinator Phil Longo and defensive coordinator Jay Bateman held their weekly press conferences on Monday to discuss went wrong against Virginia Tech, as well as Saturday’s game against Duke.
1. Tar Heels to go with a new kicker
Brown announced Monday that freshman Jonathan Kim would be the new starting kicker for the Tar Heels. Kim takes over for sophomore Noah Ruggles, who has struggled the past two weeks.
Ruggles missed a field goal against Georgia Tech on Oct. 5. And against Virginia Tech, he missed one field goal and had another blocked. Both occurred in overtime. The missed field goal, a 35-yard attempt in the third overtime period, would have won the game.
In seven games this season, Ruggles made 10 of his 16 field-goal attempts, or 62.5 percent.
“We’re 10 of 16 on field goals with three of those being blocked, but still, we’ve got to do a better job,” Brown said. “When we get down to that last-second kick, we’ve got to make it.”
2. The offensive line took a step back
In the first half of UNC’s game against Virginia Tech, the Tar Heels rushed for 115 yards on 16 carries. UNC junior running back Michael Carter found early success, rushing for 86 yards.
But in the second half, the Tar Heels struggled. They ran 24 times for 28 yards, which contributed to some stalled drives and some third-and-long plays.
When asked the reason the running game wasn’t working, Brown said the offensive line did not block as well. The Tar Heels’ offensive line, with the return of senior left tackle Charlie Heck from injury, had been much improved in recent weeks. But they struggled, not only in the running game but in pass protection, as well.
Howell, who was named ACC Quarterback of the Week, was 26 of 49 passing for 348 yards and five touchdowns. But he was constantly under pressure. Howell was sacked five times and often had to throw the ball away, leading to a low completion percentage (53 percent).
The Tar Heels have been at their best when they’ve blocked well and have given Howell enough time to find open receivers. They did it against Clemson and nearly pulled off an upset. They did it against Georgia Tech and won fairly easily.
“I think we had some miscues on Saturday that affected us,” Longo said, when asked how he’d assess the offensive line’s performance. “I don’t think we had the same continuity up front that we did in the Clemson game and in the Georgia Tech game. So those are things we have to get cleaned up here before Duke, because Duke is going to be one of the very best-coached teams that we play this whole season.”
3. The defense looked vulnerable
For the first time all season, UNC’s defense looked vulnerable. With so many injuries, especially to its secondary, depth had been a concern.
It became an issue in UNC’s 6-OT game, too. Nine of UNC’s 11 starters played in at least 83 of its 84 defensive snaps on Saturday. That’s a lot of plays for the defense. UNC defensive coordinator Jay Bateman said he didn’t think his team was tired. He blamed UNC’s defensive miscues on bad play calls and missed assignments.
However, even if his defense wasn’t tired, it will be difficult to sustain that level of production as the season grows older.
When Virginia Tech quarterback Quincy Patterson powered his way into the endzone for the final two-point conversion that won the game for the Hokies, the Tar Heels’ defense looked gassed.
4. Brown has faith in his coordinators
A video on Twitter began circulating during the game of Brown having what appeared to be a heated discussion with his offensive coordinator Phil Longo. This was after UNC’s final drive in regulation had stalled.
Longo has gotten much of the criticism from fans when the Tar Heels have struggled.
Brown said Monday that someone asked him about the incident.
“I’m on the coaches all the time,” Brown said. “I’m glad the camera’s not always on me. People have asked if I’ve ever fired one during the game. No, but I’ve felt like it, so you fans that get mad at assistants, I’m mad at them, too.”
But he also assured media members that he was pleased with his coordinators.
“I love them and I think they’re doing a tremendous job,” Brown said. “They’re giving our guys a chance to win. But when I see something I think we can do better, I’m going to be direct and I’m going to be honest and transparent with them just like I do with everyone else.”
5. The Tar Heels have no room for error
Six of UNC’s seven games have been decided by six points or less. The Tar Heels are 2-4 in those game. The one exception was the Georgia Tech game that ended in a 38-22 win for the Tar Heels.
One or two mistakes, such as against Virginia Tech, could be the deciding factor in a close game. The Tar Heels are not deep enough that they can have an off day and still pull off a victory against a good opponent.
Only one game separates UNC, Duke, Virginia and Pitt in the Coastal Division standings. With such a small margin for error, the Tar Heels likely need wins over those three teams, and N.C. State, to win the division.
“Every game has come down to the end,” Brown said. “We could very easily be 7-0, 6-1 or 0-7.”