North Carolina dropped another close game Saturday, this time to the Appalachian State Mountaineers. The Tar Heels now have to focus on the top-ranked Clemson Tigers, who will arrive in Chapel Hill this weekend. After a 2-0 start, North Carolina has lost two straight, and could not ask for a tougher opponent than the next one. The Tigers are loaded at every position, and to have any chance at an upset, the Tar Heels must play inspired football.
Tar Heels Must Play Inspired Football Against Clemson
Injuries and turnovers took their toll in the Appalachian State game. The Tar Heels found themselves down by 13 points in the second quarter, and played catch-up the rest of the game. North Carolina left tackle Charlie Heck was out with an upper-body injury, joining center Nick Polino. The impact of Heck’s absence was unmistakable. Quarterback Sam Howell was sacked from his blind side in the second quarter, and the ensuing fumble was returned by the Mountaineers for a touchdown.
Polino’s replacement at center, Brian Anderson, committed his third snap infraction in two games. While such mistakes may seem trivial, they can make a difference in games that go down to the final play, as the last two have. This cannot happen against Clemson; there is simply no margin for error. While the Tar Heels have battled back from deficits in all four games, they can’t wait this Saturday. Otherwise, this one will be over in a hurry. They have to come flying out of the gate as an angry team that wants it more than their opponent.
Tackling Has To Improve
North Carolina’s defense has certainly improved since last season, but the team’s tackling has plenty of room for improvement. Too many opposing running backs are bouncing off unfinished tackles. Last week, we discussed Appalachian State running back Darrynton Evans. On Saturday, Evans torched the Tar Heels for three rushing touchdowns. Mountaineers quarterback Zac Thomas gained 57 yards on the ground, averaging over nine yards per carry.
The Tar Heels’ tackling will have to improve against Clemson’s outstanding running backs. Travis Etienne is one of the best players in the country, and a dark horse Heisman candidate. His backup, Lyn-J Dixon, is a future star who is starting to come into his own. The Tigers don’t have to overwork Etienne, because the rushing production doesn’t fall off when Dixon is on the field. Clemson will undoubtedly try to set the tone on the ground early, and the Tar Heels will have to wrap up the Tigers’ running backs at first contact. If Etienne or Dixon get any space, there’s a good chance they’re taking it in for six.
Clemson’s receivers are the latest example of why the program is referred to as “Wide Receiver U.” Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross are both future NFL starters, and North Carolina’s defense will be stretched by the Tigers. Both players will get their targets and catches, but the Tar Heels’ secondary cannot give up big plays and expect to have a chance.
Challenge Can Present Opportunity
Against Appalachian, the secondary showed flashes, but did not perform well overall. Myles Wolfolk intercepted a pass before leaving the game with another North Carolina injury, but he missed several tackles. Myles Dorn dropped an interception and was burned for several long completions to the Mountaineers’ receivers.
The secondary will be tested mightily on Saturday. However, such a challenge can present opportunity. Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence is not shy about throwing into traffic, so one or more of the Tar Heels’ defensive backs might get the chance to make a game-changing play. If North Carolina’s defense can create turnovers and get off the field, the task of competing with Clemson suddenly becomes a little less daunting.
Howell Must Shake Off Mistakes
Howell committed three turnovers against Appalachian State, but also passed for over 300 yards, with three touchdowns. Overall, he was the bright spot for the Tar Heels. North Carolina used backup quarterback Jace Ruder for one designed run, on which he was (you guessed it) injured. However, the job is Howell’s, and he is the undisputed on-field leader of the team. He established a good rapport with his receivers in the second half. Beau Corrales and Dazz Newsome both exceeded 80 receiving yards for the game. Tight end Carl Tucker returned form injury and caught a touchdown pass. Against Clemson, it would not be surprising to see the Tar Heels try to get their tight ends more involved in the passing game.
Howell plays his best when he is given the green light to air it out.. The expectations will be lower against Clemson, and he is should be able to play loose. North Carolina will try to utilize its backfield tandem of Javonte Williams and Michael Carter. If they have success grinding out yardage, Howell will get the chance to take some shots to his receivers. This may be the game that we see North Carolina’s Air Raid offense letting it fly.
Outlook For Saturday
The Tar Heels face an uphill battle against Clemson, but they have a gritty team that hasn’t quit. They must carry that mentality into Saturday’s matchup. It will take a nearly perfect game on both sides of the ball.
North Carolina has finished strong in all four games, and now the challenge will be to start strong and maintain the intensity. The Tar Heels have to improve on their mistakes and put two close losses behind them. Mack Brown has talked about the team’s need to play with passion, and never has that been more true than right now. If that passion is there for four quarters, North Carolina can make a game of it.
Strange things have happened in Kenan Stadium in the past. They could again if the Tar Heels come out ready to prove something this week.