Sam Howell and North Carolina didn’t open with the high-powered offense from the past two seasons.
Instead, the quarterback and the 24th-ranked Tar Heels host Georgia State on Saturday night aiming to regroup from a loss and an unexpectedly rough offensive showing. The Tar Heels managed 10 points at Virginia Tech for their worst output in 26 games during Mack Brown’s second coaching stint in a performance plagued by shaky line protection, no sustained running game and a lack of multiple reliable receiving threats.
“I think we all just kind of needed a reality check,” Howell said. “I think we weren’t really ready to go in there and win a football game, and they exposed that.”
The Tar Heels (0-1) had their first preseason top-10 ranking in 24 years, but that came despite losing NFL skill-position draftees like Javonte Williams, Michael Carter and Dyami Brown.
The first test without them didn’t go well.
A veteran offensive line surrendered six sacks of Howell, who had the first three-interception game of his career. And none of UNC’s receivers generated much separation outside of Josh Downs (nine catches for 132 yards and a touchdown).
“Offensively we’ve got to pick it up, we’ve got to do better,” Brown said. “We’ve been running up and down the field here for two years and that didn’t happen on (Friday) night. … We know the concerns. We’ve got to fix them.”
Georgia State (0-1) has its own opening-week frustrations. The Panthers from the Sun Belt Conference lost 43-10 at home against Army, surrendering 258 yards rushing to the Black Knights’ option attack. The offense, returning all 11 starters, managed 177 yards after closing last year with three straight 30-point outputs.
“It was disappointing to say the least how we went out there and performed,” Georgia State coach Shawn Elliott said, adding: “We all are at fault in that loss on Saturday. Let’s accept that and then we’ll move on. I think we’re all in agreement.”
Some other things to know about Saturday’s Georgia State-UNC game:
Georgia State has a marquee win against a power-conference opponent in its recent history: a 38-30 win at Tennessee to start the 2019 season. In addition to facing UNC, the Panthers have another big-name opponent this year by visiting Auburn on Sept. 25.
Georgia State quarterback Cornelious Brown IV will be key to the Panthers’ hopes of bouncing back.
The dual-threat quarterback threw for a high of 372 yards last year to close the regular season against Georgia Southern, part of a year that included 17 passing touchdowns and seven more on the ground. But he threw for 129 yards and an interception against Army while also finishing with minus-27 rushing yards after being sacked three times.
The Tar Heels need better play from their offensive line, though it didn’t help that top center Brian Anderson played only a handful of snaps as he returned from a lower-body injury.
“For our first game, it wasn’t really a positive session in the film room,” lineman Jordan Tucker said.
That includes opening holes for Tennessee graduate transfer Ty Chandler at running back. He got just six carries through the first three quarters against Virginia Tech.
Georgia State faces quite a change defensively by going from Army’s run-heavy approach to facing the Tar Heels’ Howell-led attack. But Elliott said his team worked more on facing spread offenses since those are more common on the schedule, and facing UNC will be more familiar at least.
“I hate to say it, it’s one game,” Elliott said of Army. “We’ve got to be good against those other 11 offenses that are very, very similar.”
The Tar Heels are the preseason favorite to win the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Coastal Division but fell 14 spots in Tuesday’s AP Top 25.
“I told them today in a weird way the pressure’s off,” Brown said. “We didn’t respond to (being) No. 5 very well last year. We didn’t respond to No. 10 very well last week. So we’re still in the Top 25, and that would’ve been super two years ago. But go back to work. Go back and have fun.”
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