The Victory Bell will be painted Carolina blue for the third consecutive season, but don’t be fooled. This North Carolina football team has a long way to go before it celebrates anything.
Sure, Saturday’s 38-7 walloping of crosstown rival Duke may look good scrolling across the bottom line, and the seven points allowed showed signs that the Tar Heels’ young defensive unit is continuing to improve.
Even in scoring 31 points, though, the offense managed to show once again what the Tar Heels have lacked throughout a disappointing start to the season: offensive consistency.
“We’re just not playing consistent football,” junior quarterback Sam Howell said. “When we have bad plays, it’s usually just 10 guys doing their job and one guy’s not. That’s leading to the inconsistency that we’re seeing. So we’ve really gotta be locked in, everyone’s gotta do their job.”
In four games against lowly opponents such as Charlotte, North Carolina A&T, Northwestern and Kansas, the Blue Devils’ front seven only managed to get five total sacks. They doubled their season mark on Saturday, getting to Howell five times in one afternoon.
For much of the game, Duke lived in North Carolina’s backfield — a trend that wasn’t helped by a running game that garnered a less-than-stellar 3.6 yards per rush and long-developing routes that left plenty of time for pass rushers to collapse the pocket — but Howell’s improved elusiveness and sophomore wide receiver Josh Downs’ big-play ability partially masked these lingering issues.
“I think we definitely had some struggles today on the offensive side of the ball,” Howell said. “I don’t think we were able to move the ball as easily as we would’ve liked to. There’s definitely a lot of stuff we’ve still gotta clean up on offense.”
While many preseason predictions placed North Carolina in College Football Playoff contention, the dynamic offensive group that rocketed the Tar Heels from obscurity to national relevance in just two years is just not the same without the likes of Javonte Williams, Michael Carter and Dyami Brown.
So in order to keep winning games, UNC will continue to be forced to find different ways to win.
“One of the problems with our offense, it’s not what it is the last two years,” head coach Mack Brown said. “It’s been so easy for us offensively for two years that we’ve gotta have more patience now because we aren’t the same offensive team we were. We’ve got to continue to get better but we’ve gotta punt some and play great defense.”
With 168 receiving yards, Downs was responsible for more than half of the Tar Heels' yards through the air. Despite being pressed at the line, double teamed and forced to get open quickly, Downs’ playmaking ability was one of the Tar Heels’ lone bright spots on the offensive side.
To hear Downs tell it, the key to continuing his success is bringing a consistent mindset to the team.
“I’m just gonna keep working,” Downs said. “I’m just trying to do everything I can to help my team win. We’re still early in the season ... so it’s about consistency and that’s what I’m gonna bring to the table.”
This year, the ACC is wide open for the first time since players like Howell and Downs were in middle school. If there is any year where North Carolina can win the conference, it’s this one.
But in order to do so, some fatal flaws will have to be eliminated — or at least masked – as well as they were on Saturday.
While Saturday may have indicated UNC will remain, for the time being, a team that struggles to move the ball consistently, there are seven games remaining. Seven very winnable ones.
And while the preseason hype surrounding this group has dissipated, the Tar Heels' season is nowhere near over yet.
“We’ve still got all the goals out there as possibilities,” Brown said. “People better hang on, because we’re gonna keep getting better. The program’s getting better. We saw signs of it on defense today, and now we’ve just gotta get our offense to continue to grow as well.”
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.