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Entering its open week halfway through the season, North Carolina is on schedule. Although the disappointment of not closing the deal for a colossal upset against Clemson on Sept. 28 still stings, a 3-3 start has more than met the expectations for Mack Brown’s first half season back in Chapel Hill, particularly given the front-loaded schedule and the fact that all three losses (and yes, two of the wins) were by less than a touchdown.
More remarkable than the record is how Carolina has looked along the way. Before the season, most experts and ratings systems gave UNC a less than 50% of making a bowl. Now, ESPN’s Football Power Index — which adjusts throughout the season to rate teams based on quality of play while accounting for strength of opponents — favors the Heels in every remaining game.
Granted, all but the Mercer game have only slightly better odds than a coin flip, but the Heels are now an odds-on favorite to make a bowl, which would not only mark a successful turnaround in Brown’s first year after five wins in the prior two seasons but would also provide the additional advantage of 15 additional practices in which the new coaching staff can continue to build on the improvement of the season.
HOWELL, HEELS HANDLE JACKETS
This week’s 38–22 win over Georgia Tech demonstrated a different approach than Carolina had taken so far this season, as the Tar Heels turned up the tempo and ran 97 offensive plays against the Yellow Jackets, just four shy of the school record set against Virginia in 1959.
That breakneck pace is what offensive coordinator Phil Longo prefers, but the Heels had (smartly) slowed the pace when facing more talented teams early in the season, an approach that helps keep a thin defense from as much exposure and makes closer games more likely in the same way that a slow-tempo basketball team has less opportunity to run up a big lead.
But when facing a Georgia Tech team with less talent on the field, the Heels turned up the tempo, again the right decision from an analytics perspective. Brown’s time with ESPN seems to have paid some dividends on the big-picture strategy front.
THIRD-DOWN SUCCESS KEY TO WIN
One big reason Carolina was able to run so many plays (nearly double Georgia Tech’s 53) was its success on third down. The Heels came into the game struggling on third down, particularly on third-and-long (7-plus yards), converting on only 23.1% of those opportunities.
Against Georgia Tech, however, the Heels were 11-19 on third-down conversions, including 5 of 11 on third-and-long. Carolina also converted on its only fourth-down attempt, which also happened to be on long yardage (7 yards). Carolina is still only 94th nationally in third-down percentage (.362).
BEST NOT TO BLITZ HOWELL
Despite having three sure touchdowns dropped, Sam Howell took advantage of the higher pace, attempting a career-high 51 passes, of which he completed 31 for 376 yards, four touchdowns and one interception. (It should be noted that the interception immediately followed one of the dropped TDs.)
Howell leads the conference and is sixth in the nation with a 125.8 passer rating (using the NFL formula) when under pressure. Interestingly, Howell has been less impressive when kept clean, checking in with a still-respectable 100.9 rating (81st nationally).
DROPS CONTINUE TO PLAGUE WRS
UNC pass catchers have combined for 14 drops on the season according to Pro Football Focus data, tied for the worst mark in the ACC, with the drop rate (7.2%) on Howell’s passes checking in at fourth-worst in the conference.
Dyami Brown (6) and Dazz Newsome (5) have the dubious honor of being first and second in the ACC in number of drops. When accounting for number of opportunities, the numbers are only slightly better: Brown has dropped 20% of his catchable targets on the season (second worst among conference receivers) and Newsome 14.7% (5th).
Both Brown and Newsome are big-play receivers who have contributed heavily to Carolina’s three wins in the first half of the season, but Carolina’s receiving unit will need to be more sure-handed down the stretch if the Tar Heels want to contend for the division.
INJURY WOES CONTINUE
If Carolina does fall short of a bowl, a key culprit is (again) sure to be injuries. After Trey Morrison’s injury in the first quarter, the Tar Heels were down 11 scholarship players against Georgia Tech on Saturday, including five starters.
Among those out against the Jackets was safety Cam’Ron Kelly, who had replaced an injured Myles Wolfolk at safety against Clemson before going out himself. Kelly will miss the remainder of the season with a torn ACL.
UNC’s secondary goes into the open week down three of the five players who began the season as starters, though the timetables for Morrison and Wolfolk’s returns are unknown. At any rate, it’s safe to say the open date couldn’t have come at a better time for the Tar Heels, who need the extra time to heal up for the second half of the season.
Those injuries do seem to have caught up with the Carolina defense in the second half against Georgia Tech, as the Heels gave up a generous 8.8 yards per play in the second half after giving up only 3.4 per play in the first half.
STAT OF THE WEEK
95.8%. UNC has scored on 23-of-24 red zone trips through five games, the seventh-best mark nationally. Only 15 (62.5%) of those scores have been touchdowns, however, which ranks 55th in the nation. Improving that touchdown efficiency will be critical to Carolina’s Coastal Division hopes.