The last time the North Carolina football team played at Virginia Tech, the Tar Heels put up 41 points in a six overtime thriller. Last season in Chapel Hill, UNC dropped 56 on the Hokies’ defense.
But during Friday night’s season opener in Blacksburg, in what was billed as the start to junior quarterback Sam Howell’s potential Heisman campaign, 10 points was all the UNC offense could muster in their loss to Virginia Tech, 17-10.
UNC came into the matchup with a No. 10 preseason ranking, predicated almost entirely on the hype surrounding Howell and his offense. Head coach Mack Brown did not hesitate after the game to say that the Tar Heels did not meet expectations.
“The rating sure didn’t matter tonight,” Brown said. “We were overrated with the way we played.”
Behind the hype surrounding the program, questions lingered throughout the offseason over how UNC could replace all of the yards lost with the NFL departures of Javonte Williams, Michael Carter, Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome.
This game was supposed to reveal who from the team’s wide receiver and running back corps would step up. After the game, it seems that it may take more time to answer those questions.
“Now we should know more about who our backs are,” Brown said. “We should know more about who the receivers are that can step up and play. That’s been a concern.”
Sophomore receiver Josh Downs stuck out among his fellow receivers as a bright spot in the offense. The wide receiver hauled in eight receptions for 123 yards and a touchdown, but behind him there was little production.
Sophomore wide receiver Emery Simmons had three receptions, but many targets resulted in an incompletion or a drop. Sophomore receiver Khafre Brown, Dyami Brown's younger brother, didn’t catch a pass, while graduate tight end Garrett Walston brought in one six-yard reception on four targets.
Howell simply could not establish much of a chemistry with his new weapons. The gunslinging QB had an uncharacteristic three interceptions, and he was often forced to make plays on his feet after the pocket collapsed.
“It was our worst offensive performance since I’ve been here,” Howell said. “(The Virginia Tech defense) played harder than us, and they really dominated us all night long.”
Not all of the blame for the offensive woes can be placed on Howell, though. The offense struggled to establish a rhythm in the first half as Virginia Tech dominated the possession game, marching down the field and draining the clock on their first three offensive drives.
“They were definitely more physical than us in the first half,” senior linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel said. “I think when we came in during halftime and we made adjustments, we settled down.”
When the offense was on the field, the linemen were consistently beat by the Hokies’ pounding defense. Howell was sacked six times, and the Tar Heel backs struggled to find holes to establish the run game.
“It was really, really disappointing that we didn’t run the ball better the first half, and I did think the sacks were a surprise and disappointing,” Brown said. “We’ve been talking about that for two years, and then in an opening ball game I thought we would be really good up front.”
Of course, one game does not define a team, and a season opener certainly doesn’t define how the rest of the season will pan out.
For Brown and his squad, it’s back to the drawing board before the home opener against Georgia State next Saturday.
“It’ll be an uncomfortable couple of days for all of us, but when something’s not working, as it didn’t tonight, you got to be real honest with each other,” Brown said. “You got to get things fixed.”
What’s clear is that even with all of Howell’s talent, it’ll take some more time to get all of the gears moving with this season’s offense.
In a way, Brown feels like he is back to square one with many of his offensive pieces. But with Howell presumably gone for the NFL after this season, there's no time to waste.
“We’re kind of back to the unknowns of the first year, like we were two years ago,” Brown said. “Because Dyami and Dazz and Javonte and Michael came so far over the two-year period, so these guys just have to come faster.”
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