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Saturday’s matchup between North Carolina and Virginia Tech involved the debut of new rules in which, starting with the fifth overtime, teams alternate penalty kicks — er, two-point attempts — rather than starting with a standard four-down possession from the 25-yard line as in prior overtime periods.
And for the second time this season, a game that came down to a late two-point conversion ended in disappointing fashion for the Tar Heels, who have now had six of their seven games decided by less than a touchdown.
Carolina had multiple opportunities to win the game — including a missed 35-yard field goal in the third overtime and a blocked 44-yard attempt after a delay-of-game penalty wiped out kicker Noah Ruggles’ 39-yarder in the fourth overtime. This is, of course, the second time UNC has had a late kick blocked this season, as Appalachian State blocked Ruggles’ game-tying attempt at the end of regulation in the Sept. 21 game.
In addition to being an especially heartbreaking loss, Saturday’s contest has also changed the complexion of the season. After traveling to Blacksburg with realistic hopes of competing for the division crown, Carolina now stands at 3–4 and needs to win three of its final five games to qualify for a bowl game.
Given the state of Carolina’s roster and the strength of its final four conference opponents, that result is no given, though quarterback Sam Howell’s continued development (a school record-tying five TDs, no turnovers on Saturday) should give Tar Heel fans the confidence that the Heels will at least be competitive in each of their remaining games.
BANGED-UP D RUNS OUT OF GAS
Nevertheless, improvement on defense was key to Carolina’s success early in the season, but key injuries on that side of the football have significantly diminished the resources available to coordinator Jay Bateman. Four of Carolina’s top six defensive backs did not suit up in Blacksburg (CBs Patrice Rene and Trey Morrison, safeties Myles Wolfolk and Cam’Ron Kelly), obviously not ideal against a Virginia Tech team with one of the best groups of wide receivers in the ACC.
As might be expected, the Hokies took advantage of the depleted UNC secondary to the tune of 11.2 yards per pass attempt. Carolina’s difficulties matching up with Virginia Tech’s receivers also limited the resources Bateman could employ to stop the run, and the Hokies took particular advantage after Jason Strowbridge — UNC’s best defensive lineman — briefly left the game with an injury in the second half.
There were still positives to be had — starting with Chazz Surratt’s 17 tackles (two for a loss) and a sack — but in the end, Carolina’s defense simply lacks the healthy talent and depth necessary to sustain outstanding play on that side of the ball.
EVANS IS A TAR HEEL
That said, help is on the way for Bateman and the defensive staff, who on Friday received a commitment from the nation’s fifth-ranked defensive lineman, Des Evans (Sanford Lee County). The 6-foot-6, 240-pound Evans is widely regarded as one of the top 25 players in the nation regardless of position and is the highest-rated player Carolina has landed since Marvin Austin in 2007.
Carolina now has six blue-chip defenders committed for the class of 2020, including three defensive linemen ranked in the top 15 nationally at their respective positions. Five of the six hail from the state of North Carolina. UNC’s 2020 recruiting class now projects to finish in the top 20 nationally.
BASKETBALL PICKS UP ANOTHER COMMITMENT
Carolina’s 2020 recruiting class got even stronger on Monday morning as R.J. Davis, a 5-11 combo guard from White Plains (New York) Archbishop Stepinac, celebrated his 18th birthday by committing to the Tar Heels. Davis is a terrific shooter (over 40% from long range), and should continue the recent trend of Carolina point guards who are efficient scoring threats.
NUMBERS OF THE WEEK
20. After throwing for nine touchdowns in the last two outings, Howell has set the UNC freshman record for touchdown passes with 20 scores in only seven games, breaking Darian Durant’s mark of 17. Mitch Trubisky’s school record of 30 also appears to be in danger.
7. That’s how many FBS quarterbacks have 20-plus interceptions and five or fewer interceptions. That list? Tua Tagovailoa (Alabama), Joe Burrow (LSU), Justin Fields (Ohio State), Sam Ehlinger (Texas), Jalen Hurts (Oklahoma), Justin Herbert (Oregon) and UNC’s Sam Howell. That’s pretty good company for the UNC true freshman to share.
Jason Staples has covered college football since 2007. You can follow him on Twitter @DocStaples and check out more of his work at InsideCarolina.com.