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Much improvement on tap for Tar Heels

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Coming into the weekend’s rivalry tilt against N.C. State, North Carolina knew it would need to stop the run, win the special teams battle and get a few big plays in the passing game to win. The Heels were only able to check the last of those three boxes, as the Wolfpack dominated the final quarter on their way to handing the Tar Heels a 33–21 loss.

Two early blown coverages by the Wolfpack led to a 51-yard Anthony Ratliff-Williams score and a 39-yard Michael Carter touchdown on a nicely designed play-action pass that gave UNC a lead it would take into the half, but the Wolfpack put the clamps on the Tar Heel offense the remainder of the afternoon.

Carolina managed only 5.22 yards per play as quarterback Nathan Elliott struggled all afternoon, completing only 21 of 45 attempts (46.7 percent) for 6.2 yards per attempt, and the Carolina running game could never get on track against N.C. State’s veteran defensive front.

On the other side of the ball, it was a story Tar Heel fans have seen before, with the defense holding its own through three quarters before running out of gas in the final period. The Carolina defense gave up a respectable 5.32 yards per pass through the first nine drives of the game before giving up 11.8 yards per pass on the Wolfpack’s last three drives, including two long runs by Nyheim Hines within two minutes of each other on each side of the start of the fourth quarter. 

Ultimately, the Tar Heels simply could not hold up against the run for four quarters, giving up a total of 45 rushes for 292 yards (6.5 yards per carry) and 6.61 yards per play overall.

Now begins a long offseason in which the Tar Heels will have much to improve. Those improvements obviously start with getting healthier, but the quarterback position remains a huge question mark heading into 2018. The defense needs to find a way to finish games, and the offensive line needs to be rebuilt into a cohesive unit after a difficult 2017 campaign. Of course, finding a way to land a few extra difference makers in the 2018 recruiting class would also help.

PAYTON WILSON DECOMMITS

On that front, Hillsborough Orange linebacker Payton Wilson added insult to injury by decommitting from the Tar Heels last week, with N.C. State, Notre Dame, and Clemson his most likely landing spots at this stage. “I feel like [UNC’s] not a great fit for me and my family,” Wilson told Adam Freeman from Rivals.com, “I didn’t fit in well with the general population at the school.” Wilson, who is presently recovering from a torn ACL, had previously been one of Carolina’s highest rated recruits and had actively recruited other prospects to join him in Chapel Hill.

BASKETBALL NOTES

After averaging 95 points in wins over Stanford, Portland, and Arkansas, UNC basketball laid an egg in a 63–45 loss to No. 4 Michigan State on Sunday evening. The Heels struggled mightily against the Spartans’ length, athleticism, and defensive intensity, shooting 24.6 percent from the field, including 1-18 (5.6 percent) from three-point range, each a program record for shooting futility.

Not threatened by Carolina’s young interior, Michigan State was able to turn up the perimeter pressure, forcing 16 turnovers and preventing the open outside shots Carolina had feasted upon in previous games. The Spartans’ length and physicality also appeared to bother UNC around the basket, with the Heels shying away from contact and missing an unusual number of layups in the game, contested or otherwise. 

The Tar Heels’ small ball lineups will give most teams trouble, but success in March will depend on Carolina’s ability to handle more physical teams that can protect the rim, rebound and pressure the perimeter with length and athleticism.

Interestingly, Carolina’s most successful lineup was the small unit featuring Jalek Felton, Joel Berry, Kenny Williams, Theo Pinson, and Garrison Brooks, which was plus-five in a 2 minute, 18 second stretch in the second half. Carolina was plus-two overall in the approximately 13 minutes Pinson spent at power forward.

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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