Following UNC Football’s 34-31 loss to App State, are the Tar Heels in trouble?

CHAPEL HILL, NORTH CAROLINA - SEPTEMBER 21: Ryan Huff #21 and Demetrius Taylor #48 of the Appalachian State Mountaineers force a fumble by Sam Howell #7 of the North Carolina Tar Heels during the second half of their game at Kenan Stadium on September 21, 2019 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The Mountaineers won 34-31. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
CHAPEL HILL, NORTH CAROLINA - SEPTEMBER 21: Ryan Huff #21 and Demetrius Taylor #48 of the Appalachian State Mountaineers force a fumble by Sam Howell #7 of the North Carolina Tar Heels during the second half of their game at Kenan Stadium on September 21, 2019 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The Mountaineers won 34-31. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images) /

With 2 straight losses and an upcoming matchup against #1 Clemson, here’s why North Carolina might be stuck between a rock and a hard place

Make no mistake about it. Appalachian State’s 34-31 win against North Carolina on Saturday evening shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

UNC was only favored by 3 points on the spread, and the Mountaineers had walked into Chapel Hill with a reputation for providing challenges to some of the best power conference teams in all of college football. Most notably, App State’s victory against Michigan in 2006 put the program on the map, while its close 48-45 defeat against Penn State last season still served as a reminder that the team was far from declining ever since winning three consecutive FCS championships from 2005 to 2007.

With the glory of a record-setting Mountaineer victory on Saturday came the utter sorrow of defeat that North Carolina has worked tirelessly to avoid since the end of last season. The same ACC program that finally was in serious consideration for a spot in the top 25 two weeks ago is now struggling down the wire against in-state opponents that were initially expected to serve as tune-up competition leading into this week’s matchup against #1 Clemson.

As the Tar Heels fall to a meager 2-2, it’s still worth clarifying that Mack Brown has already changed this program for the better.

With a new coach that is finding his footing, the Tar Heels have already tied their win count from last season, their games in Kenan Stadium are selling out for the first time in years, and their play on the field indicates they could be well on the way to their first bowl game since 2016. The seeds of a winning culture are being planted, and that in itself is an accomplishment.

However, even while the Tar Heels continue to impress in areas like fourth-quarter scoring -ranking 12th in the nation – the defeat against App State marks their second-straight loss decided by a final possession.

All of UNC’s games this season have either been won or lost by no more than one touchdown, effectively giving the Tar Heels a -2 point scoring margin on the season. The Tar Heels may know how to make up for lost ground quickly, but their scoring throughout games this season has been sporadic and unpredictable, regardless of whether or not the offensive line has been fully healthy.

Although UNC would have been ecstatic to be earning wins against South Carolina and Miami a year ago, the striking commonality between last season and this season lies in the fact that this program is still losing games by thin margins: it was only one year ago when the Heels had lost 7 of their games by 10 points or less under Larry Fedora. So while Mack Brown has received great acclaim for reinvigorating a fourth quarter mentality in his team, his ability to help avoid sluggish starts and finish games will continue to be tested throughout ACC play for the rest of the season.

It’s still worth noting that Brown’s hiring last November served as a reset to the entire UNC football program. The effects were felt immediately in his recruiting efforts: it only took two and a half months for North Carolina to orchestrate a top-25 recruiting class.

Embarrassing road blowout losses to teams like ECU and Miami suddenly became a thing of the past as UNC could easily sell itself on the leadership of a former national champion, especially as the hashtags #MackIsBack and #LetsGetThisWork began to infectiously take over Twitter.

Fast-forwarding to a harsher reality, UNC’s loss against the Mountaineers marked its second defeat to a school in the state of North Carolina this season, with the first coming against Wake Forest. As the Demon Deacons and Mountaineers remain undefeated, both will frequently engage in recruiting battles with the Tar Heels with more leverage than before – UNC currently has 48 players on its roster from North Carolina, while Wake has 26 and App has and 54.

UNC’s losses to both programs can easily serve as a disadvantage when aiming to land nearby three and four-star recruits, thus directly impacting the level of talent that could end up playing in Chapel Hill.

To make up for these defeats on the recruiting front, North Carolina will have to defeat both of its neighboring rivals – Duke and NC State – to continue sending the message to local prospects that Chapel Hill is a top destination.

And while the war to win recruits against in-state rivals is long-term, the battle that will be the most pressing in the meantime for North Carolina will take place at home Saturday against #1 Clemson.

The defending national champions have only continued their dominance against opponents like #12 Texas A&M and Georgia Tech this month, most recently extending their win streak to 19 games last Saturday against Charlotte.

Powered by Heisman Trophy candidate Trevor Lawrence, the Tigers’ spread offense has helped the team average 524.8 yards per game while outscoring its competition 167-40 through four games this season.

North Carolina will not play another offensive juggernaut of this caliber this year, and because the Tar Heels have already suffered against Miami’s spread offense, there are more reasons to believe they could find themselves on a three-game losing streak heading into next week.

If North Carolina wants to pull off the greatest home victory in its 131-year program history, the Tar Heels will have to apply a stacked and diverse set of pass rushes against one of the best offensive lines in college football. When Clemson was last defeated by Syracuse in October of 2017, the Orange ran blitzes from different parts of its defense that helped hold the Tigers to 204 yards passing.

North Carolina’s secondary and linebackers will need to take part in adding pressure in the pocket against Trevor Lawrence, just as much as it should apply a wide variety of double and triple coverages on star receivers like Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins to have a shot at victory.

In the event that an unorthodox approach to the Tar Heel defense successfully comes to fruition, offensive coordinator Phil Longo’s play-calling will have to focus the most on short passes from Sam Howell and on outside runs with running backs like Michael Carter. Howell has played his best football when calling fade and out routes to players like Dyami Brown and Beau Corrales against South Carolina and Miami.

To open up the run game, Carolina will have to avoid Clemson’s ability to clog runs up the middle and potentially depend on Carter to break loose on less-conventional runs.

Next. Chazz Surratt getting reps at QB. dark

North Carolina vs. Clemson will kick off at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 28 on ABC. For more on the game, please check back with Keeping It Heel.