North Carolina got knocked out of both the coaches and media top 25 polls after suffering its second road loss of the season. Georgia Tech played, perhaps, its best game of the season in a 45-22 romp over the Tar Heels in Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Here are five things we learned in Week 4:
When the offense can’t run, the Heels can’t fly
Carolina was held to a season-low 63 yards rushing against Georgia Tech. And with the running game stymied, that made it much harder for the offense to get into a rhythm. The Heels can’t just bank on quarterback Sam Howell to bail the ground game out with his passing. They need balance.
Howell’s career record when he attempts 35 or more passes in a game is just 2-5, including Saturday’s loss in which he completed 25 passes on 39 attempts for 306 yards and two touchdowns.
There are still too many mistakes being made in the run game. Like when tight end Kamari Morales pulled to be a blocker on their fourth down play in the third quarter, but he whiffed on his block and Howell was dropped for a loss.
Running QBs are still a problem for the defense
UNC pretty much controlled the game defensively when GT starting quarterback Jordan Yates played the game’s first 27 minutes. But when Tech inserted Jeff Sims into the lineup, the tone of the game changed.
UNC coach Mack Brown said Sims reminded him of former Texas quarterback Vince Young. Sims rushed for 128 yards and three touchdowns including a 50-yarder in the fourth quarter that was the longest run from scrimmage against the Heels this season.
“It’s hard to show his speed in practice, he looks like Vince Young,” Brown said after the game. “When I saw him as a true freshman, I said, ‘Oh my gosh, that guy’s gonna be really good.’ He’s gonna give Georgia Tech a chance each week.”
The Heels need a sack solution
Carolina allowed eight sacks against the Yellow Jackets, which moved their season total to 17. That’s good (really, it’s bad) for last in the ACC. Georgia Tech only had three sacks entering the game.
The Heels have to figure something out quick. Either the offensive line needs to shuffle its personnel. They need quarterback Sam Howell to start having a quicker release and send receivers on shorter routes. Or they need to keep more protection in on passing plays with a tight end or running back blocking.
Something has to change, because the Heels are on pace for a 50-sack season.
Carolina must ease Howell’s burden
Howell had just seven interceptions all of last season. He’s already accounted for a total of eight turnovers — four interceptions, four fumbles — through Carolina’s first four games. It’s no coincidence that six of those turnovers occurred in the Tar Heels’ two losses.
It may be a case of Howell feeling too much pressure to be the guy to make a play. A lot of those run-pass option plays UNC has run this season, he would have handed off last year. Howell’s had double digit carries in every game so far and has a total of 55. At this rate, he’ll surpass his career-high of 94 from 2019 in another three games.
Howell did put up back-to-back 100-yard games rushing. But against the better defenses, he’s been held in check.
All fourth down gambles are not the same
Carolina went for a fourth-and-1 on a second quarter drive at the GT 49 and running back Ty Chandler picked it up rather easily. That was an easy risk to take. The Heels still led in the game, 7-6, and the defense had twice held the Jackets to field goal despite reaching the UNC 10.
The circumstances were quite different in the third quarter when Carolina went for a fourth-and-1 from their own 41. This was a much greater risk that led to a much greater reward for the Yellow Jackets.
For starters, the Heels were now trailing 13-7. That’s because when the defense was again asked to defend a short field after a Howell fumble, the Jackets scored a touchdown on a 17-yard drive.
Chandler gained nine yards on first down, so UNC had two tries on second and third downs to get one yard and were stuffed. The down side of not making the first down was gifting Tech another short field to mount a drive, which is exactly what happened. Tech took over at the UNC 39. And two plays later the Jackets scored a touchdown to take a 20-7 lead and take control of the game from that point forward.
Next UNC game
Who: UNC vs. Duke
When: Noon, Saturday, Oct. 2
Where: Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill