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Tar Heels can’t cope with Cavs’ aerial game

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North Carolina knew coming into The South’s Oldest Rivalry on Saturday night that its success hinged on slowing down one man: Virginia quarterback Bryce Perkins, the Cavaliers’ season leader in both passing and rushing. The Tar Heel defense proved not to be up to the task, as Perkins amassed 490 yards and five touchdowns in UVA’s 38-31 win in a packed Kenan Stadium.

Despite the return of cornerbacks Storm Duck and Trey Morrison, UNC was unable to limit Virginia’s short passing game, and UVA was able to neutralize Carolina defensive tackles Aaron Crawford and Jason Strowbridge, who combined for just three tackles on 131 snaps a week after the pair combined for 16 tackles (including 2.5 for loss and 1.5 sacks) against Duke.

Virginia used a combination of quick Perkins throws, runs with the quarterback, and max protection to keep UNC’s defense off balance, and the high snap counts of Carolina’s starters appeared to have an impact in this game, as the defensive line appeared to wear down in the second half, with Virginia scoring 21 points and gaining 15 yards per play in the third quarter alone.

Carolina still had multiple opportunities to tie or win the game, as evidenced by coming away with only three points on three red zone trips, including two that ended with a turnover on downs after incompletions on catchable throws.

THIN MARGINS

Saturday’s loss marked Carolina’s eighth one-possession game this season; the Heels are now 3-5 in those games. There’s little reason to expect anything different this week as Carolina travels to face a Pittsburgh team that has played in six one-possession games this season and is 11 points from 8-1 and 34 points from 0-9. The margin between wins and losses is thin in college football, nowhere more so than in the ACC Coastal Division.

HOWELL CONTINUES TO IMPRESS

Tar Heel quarterback Sam Howell kept his team in the game with a barrage of long touchdown throws. For the third week in a row, Howell’s completion percentage was below 55%, but he made those completions count, averaging 23.5 yards per completion and a remarkable 12.2 yards per attempt. Howell’s completion percentage would’ve also been significantly higher had his receivers not dropped five passes, including two drive-ending fourth-down incompletions.

Howell’s four touchdown passes put his season total at 26, tied with Miami’s Brad Kaaya for the third most by a freshman in ACC history. With three games remaining, it looks probable that Howell will match or exceed Trevor Lawrence’s total of 30 from last season, though Jameis Winston’s conference record of 40 set in 2013 looks safe. 

Howell is one of only two quarterbacks this season to have thrown for over 2,400 yards, 25 touchdowns, and five or fewer interceptions. The other is LSU’s Joe Burrow, who is currently one of the front-runners to win the Heisman Trophy. 

YOUTH CONTINUES TO SHINE

Carolina’s future is now on the offensive side of the ball. All four Carolina touchdowns involved a throw from a true freshman quarterback to a sophomore receiver. The Heels’ leading rusher (Javonte Williams) and receiver (Dyami Brown) were sophomores. And, of course, the Carolina offensive line started four underclassmen.

MORE BEEF TO 2020 CLASS

Carolina has added commitments from two offensive linemen to its 2020 recruiting class, first from 6-foot-6, 260-pound tackle Cayden Baker (Fort Myers, Florida) and then from 6-4, 290-pound guard Jonathan Adorno (Rolesville), who had previously been committed to N.C. State, making him the second flip from the Wolfpack in a week, along with wide receiver Stephen Gosnell (Pilot Mountain).

Carolina’s 2020 class is especially strong on the line of scrimmage, with linemen now making up 10 of the 26 commitments, including the top-3 rated prospects in the class. Also significant: at least 10 of Carolina’s current commitments are expected to enroll early, giving them a better opportunity to contribute right away.

EXHIBITION WIN

The ninth-ranked Tar Heels opened the 2019–20 basketball season with a 96-61 win over Winston-Salem State in an exhibition game Friday night. Garrison Brooks had a game-high 18 points and 11 rebounds. Three others scored in double figures: grad transfer Christian Keeling (14) and freshmen Cole Anthony (11) and Armando Bacot (10). Anthony added seven assists and Bacot 10 rebounds. 

Not all the news out of the exhibition was positive, however, as Carolina turned the ball over 23 times. More significantly, senior guard Brandon Robinson left in the first half after spraining an ankle after a blocked shot on a fast break; X-rays were negative, but the injury is significant enough that there is no timetable for his return. Robinson had eight points before the injury.

Carolina hosts Notre Dame to open the regular season with a conference game on Wednesday. 

NUMBER OF THE WEEK

9. Howell has thrown for at least two touchdowns in all nine games this season. That’s the longest such streak in the nation.

13. That’s the number of passing plays over 40 yards so far for North Carolina. That’s tied for sixth nationally.

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.


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