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Spirits high for Tar Heels despite first loss

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As disappointing as North Carolina’s six-point loss at Wake Forest on Friday night was, the Tar Heels have definitely exceeded expectations so far in 2019. Few Tar Heel fans and (if they were honest) few in the Carolina program would have turned down a preseason guarantee to begin the season 2–1.

Despite Friday’s loss, the energy brought by the return of head coach Mack Brown has not diminished. Indeed, the way the Heels finished the game, coming back from 18 down to start the fourth quarter to give themselves a chance on the last drive, attested to the newfound confidence in the program. One look at the Carolina sideline in the fourth quarter made it obvious that the Tar Heels still believed they were going to come back and win the game—a very different atmosphere and attitude from last year’s fragile team.

Of course, the execution on the last few plays betrayed a young team still learning to win, but the progress to this point has been faster than nearly anyone anticipated. 


Improved quarterback play has been a key component of Carolina’s improvement so far this season, as true freshman Sam Howell has shined with the game on the line. Howell was the ACC QB and Freshman of the Week after the Miami game and has gone 15–18 for 259 yards, five touchdowns, and no turnovers when Carolina has been trailing in the fourth quarter. That’s a stat line most seniors would gladly take, let alone a freshman seeing his first college action. 

Howell did, however, struggle in the first half against Wake Forest, as he appeared bothered by the Demon Deacons’ zone and pressure packages. He was briefly replaced by redshirt freshman Jace Ruder, who ran three times for 21 yards and completed one pass for seven yards before the half. Howell seemed more settled upon his return in the second half and made several NFL-caliber throws in leading the Heels to three second-half scores.

The Carolina staff has continued to take a conservative approach in the early portions of games, avoiding anything that could lead to a game-changing mistake from their young quarterback, but Howell’s ability to answer the call when they’ve asked him to make big throws down the stretch has been instrumental to the Heels’ success late in games.


That late-game success has represented one of the most visible differences between this team and recent Carolina squads, as North Carolina has outscored its first three opponents 38–9 in the fourth quarter (plus-29 margin). That fourth quarter scoring differential was minus-72 in the past two seasons, including a minus–31 deficit in the final period last season.

Improved conditioning, confidence, and Howell’s clutch play appear to be the primary factors in this shift, without which the Tar Heels would be 0–3 on the season.


Despite a revamped approach to the strength program and even warm-ups to aid in injury prevention after two unusually injury-plagued seasons in Chapel Hill, Carolina limped into Wake Forest with five key starters (not to mention TE Brandon Fritts, who tore his ACL in the spring) out for the game. 

The Carolina running game, which had been effective early against Miami, has struggled since Nick Polino, who had moved from guard to center to shore up the weak spot on the offensive line, broke his leg in the first half of that game. He will be out several more weeks after having surgery to repair the break.

Patrice Rene, the team’s top cornerback, tore his ACL against the Hurricanes and is out for the season. Rene was especially missed against Wake Forest’s unusually tall receivers, who feasted on the Tar Heels’ smaller corners in the 6-foot-2 Rene’s absence.

Defensive lineman Jason Strowbridge — arguably Carolina’s best defensive player — was a late scratch against Wake Forest due to an ankle sprain. The Tar Heels badly missed Strowbridge’s disruptiveness, which was instrumental to the win over Miami, against a Wake Forest rushing attack that kept Carolina off balance all night.

Tight end Carl Tucker and receiver Antoine Green also missed the Wake Forest game with injuries, and starting right tackle Jordan Tucker left before the half and did not return after injuring what appeared to be his left knee.

To put it bluntly, Carolina needs to find a way to pacify the football gods and get healthier, as this team simply lacks the depth to handle its key contributors missing time.


21.4%. The Tar Heels have struggled badly on third down, as reflected by their third-down conversion rate, which is good for 125th in the nation. A big part of the problem is that Carolina averages 8.4 yards to go on third down, suggesting that the solution to the third-down woes is more consistency on first and second down.

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.