Tar Heels get tough as Virginia looms

Coach Mack Brown and his staff have plenty to fix following UNC’s 1-1 start

Running back British Brooks and the Tar Heels need to shore up a running attack that has been inconsistent through two games. (Chris Seward / AP Photo)

The North Carolina Tar Heels had a tough opening week. Entering the game at Virginia Tech No. 10 in the nation, the Heels were upset by the Hokies, 17-10. Sam Howell saw his Heisman campaign end before it even began, throwing a career-high three interceptions in a losing effort.

That didn’t mean the season was over. Plenty of teams in college football — everyone except for 10 teams, in fact — can’t say they’re a top-10 team, and plenty of players — about 1,600 each year — have to live with not being a serious Heisman candidate.

Howell and the Tar Heels were able to hit the reset button on Saturday, pounding Georgia State in the home opener. Howell became just the second UNC quarterback in history to pass for 300 yards and run for 100, highlighted by a 62-yard touchdown run.

While Georgia State is a bowl team, the Panthers aren’t quite on the same level as ACC opposition, which Carolina will face again this week when Virginia comes to Kenan. So coach Mack Brown wanted to make sure that Week 2 was just as tough a week as the opener.

“We took Saturday night’s game, even though it was a good win for us, and looked at every possible thing that we could do a better job of,” he said. “But we’ve been really hard. Sometimes after you win, you walk out with your chest stuck out and think, ‘Oh, that was good,’ and you’re not as tough on yourself. So we’ve been really, really hard with evaluations.”

Despite Howell’s big performance and Antoine Green’s breakout 117-yard game at receiver, there are still plenty of issues with the team, as Brown told the players in no uncertain terms.

“After the opening ball game, we had to quit worrying about rankings and we had to quit worrying about the conference,” he said. “We had to play better and get back on track. So right now, we’ve got enough issues. We’re worried about us. We’ve got to figure out why we’re inconsistent in the running game. We’ve got to figure out why we still give up sacks and why we are still missing tackles and not getting sacks. We’ve got a lot of things we’ve got to fix. Virginia is playing much better than we are.”

The Cavaliers have beaten the Tar Heels four years in a row, including a 44-41 upset in Charlottesville last year. UVA is also one of just five ACC teams to make it through the first two weeks unbeaten, including a blowout victory over Big Ten team Illinois last week.

Quarterback Brennan Armstrong completed 27 passes for 408 yards and leads the league in total offense and passing. The line was able to protect him — he was the only quarterback in college football pressured four times or fewer last week.

Carolina will be defending Armstrong and the Cavaliers offense without cornerback Ladaeson Hollins, who suffered a season-ending injury on Saturday. Corner Storm Duck has also been slow in returning to the field from an injury that cost him much of last season.

While the Heels have a deep defensive line, Brown needs to see more from them.

“We’ve still got to create more sacks,” he said. “We missed seven tackles in space, and we’re not getting the sacks that we need. We’ve still got to improve them in that area.”

That will be a challenge against an experienced Virginia line that returns everyone from last year.

“They were more physical than we were (in last year’s loss),” Brown said. “They should be rated higher than they are. They should be rated higher than we are. They’ve dominated two games.”

On offense, the Tar Heels need to get Khafre Brown more involved. Mack Brown pointed out his drop that likely would have been a touchdown. He also said the running game, which outside of Howell has struggled to gain yards, has kept him up nights. Backup running backs D.J. Jones and British Brooks are both nursing injuries, and their status for Saturday is still up in the air.

Then there’s the injury-plagued offensive line. The Tar Heels have not had their five starters available yet this season. Brian Anderson missed the opener with an injury, and Joshua Ezeudu missed the Georgia State game.

“We really needed to start off at a better rate on game one because we needed to be able to lean on those guys in the opener,” offensive coordinator Phil Longo said of the line. “But I think we’re going to get better each week. I think our guys will continue to improve. I think you’ll see more and more continuity up front. And I think you’ll see our running backs get into a little bit more of a rhythm. So you just want to see that process happen faster, right? Because when it doesn’t happen, it costs you plays and potentially games.”

The last thing the Tar Heels need already down one game in the ACC Coastal standings is another loss. So things will continue to be tough in Chapel Hill, regardless of how many things go well.