Upon Further Review: UNC

Jordan Veneziale and Hardrick Willis wrap up a North Carolina player during Saturday’s loss in Chapel Hill. Photo: Daniel Wilson for Georgia State Athletics

Georgia State went up to Chapel Hill to face the North Carolina Tar Heels on Saturday and, judging by the 59-17 final score, probably wished they hadn’t. There are no moral victories in college football, but as was the case in their Week 1 loss, the Panthers had an up and down game on both sides of the ball against a team ready and capable of pouncing on their mistakes. The highs might have been a little higher than they were the week prior, but the lows were pretty bad, if not worse. Is there anything to take away from this shellacking, and are there some red flags to be found in the 2021 Panthers? This is Upon Further Review. 

Sam Howell Is Good. Like, Really Good

Let’s get one thing straight. Forget talk about the Heisman race and forget talk about week 1 upsets – Sam Howell is going to have a future playing football on Sundays. Before the matchup with Georgia State, Howell’s stats through 2 years as the UNC starting QB look like this:

  • 2019 Stats: 61.4% completion rate, 3,641 passing yards, 38 passing TDs, 160.2 QB Rating 
  • 2020 Stats: 68.1% completion rate, 3,586 passing yards, 30 passing TDs, 179.1 QB Rating

That’s pretty good. The arm talent was very apparent on Saturday, none more so than on North Carolina’s first passing touchdown. Cornerback Jaylon Jones was step for step with wide receiver Antoine Green for 50+ yards and even had his hands in position to make a play on the ball, but Howell’s ball placement was the difference maker. Touchdown Tar Heels. Not every play was as crisp as this one by Jones, and some of Howell’s passes landed in wide open hands as opposed to covered ones, but his great rapport with his receivers and ball placement was huge in his ability to throw all over Georgia State. At some point. you just tip your cap and recognize that someone is going to look at Howell and say, “League him.”

Offensive Execution Starts Under Center

Quarterback Quad Brown struggled for the second consecutive week and it’s going to be something to monitor going forward. The Panthers sophomore gunslinger never got comfortable on the field versus Army and it was more of the same against North Carolina. There is no reason to open the QB controversy conversation…yet, but it would behoove the Panthers to get their guy feeling confident and comfortable again. The problem this year has been less about Quad’s decision-making and more about his accuracy when he does throw. He has made some poor decisions that have led to interceptions this season, such as his interception in garbage time against the Tar Heels, but a much more concerning problem is his lack of touch on some of his passes that he did possess last season. Several times during the UNC game, Brown had McCoy open either in a pocket of defensive backs or down the sideline and he would just airmail the throw. On one occasion during the first quarter, Brown and Payne were not on the same page on an in-breaking route and Brown’s pass forced Payne to turn and contort his body to attempt a catch on a ball thrown behind him. Even if the two weren’t on the same page, a better throw has a higher catch percentage and likely leads to a 1st down deep in the Tar Heels’ redzone. It’s not time to be worried about the young QB, but a bounce-back performance this week is going to be important. 

Elsewhere, the Panthers rushing attack appeared stuck in the mud for most of the game. The Panthers running backs struggled to run the ball for most of the game and were close to not being either of the team’s top two rushers in the game. Backup quarterback Darren Grainger checked into the game with 11:22 left in the 4th and was the team’s leading rusher. Running back Tucker Gregg barely won second place on the list over wide receiver Cornelius McCoy, who did not run for another attempt after his initial 29-yard rush in the first quarter. The offensive line can’t really be blamed as they did an admirable job creating holes and getting as much push as could be against some stiff competition, but the Panthers’ rushing attack has not gotten off to the start they were hoping for. There were times in the second quarter where Quad was being the point man in an option attack that was working. Georgia State would love that execution to continue going forward. 

Returning to Grainger, the backup transfer from Furman gave Georgia State its best offensive drive in the game and that’s worth a shoutout. Grainger had a confidence and poise about him that has not been seen under center for the Panthers this year. His quick decision-making ability and speed led him to scamper for a 36 yard run that almost ended in a touchdown. A play later, Marcus Carroll finished the job, but Grainger’s performance when the game was well out of reach was worth a mention. No QB battles just yet, but it’s something to watch going forward. 

Don’t be Shocked if the Defense Isn’t This Bad

Take away Howell’s two touchdown runs and Georgia State’s defense gives up 117 rushing yards and only 3 yards per carry on 38 attempts. The official record won’t reflect that, but the bare bones of a defense capable of stopping the run is still here. The Panthers’ pass rush only had one sack on the night, but they were not completely overmatched against an ACC offensive line. Hardrick Willis and Dontae Wilson did a great job of making their respective assignments work a little harder to protect Howell. Wilson’s half-sack came late in the first half and helped hold the Tar Heels to just a field goal before halftime. Blake Carroll picked up the other half of a sack on his way to a 2.5 tackle for loss evening. One other player worth highlighting is Jordan Veneziale, who had an up and down game but mostly played a strong ILB. He finished as the Panthers’ leading tackler and was asked to do a little bit of everything in the defensive effort. While he didn’t end up getting to anyone in the backfield, his presence was felt and could be a weapon for the Panthers going forward when they want to bring pressure. 

The secondary has not had a great season so far, but given the injuries and competition, it’s too early to say what the unit is capable of. Through two games, the Panthers have yet to collect an interception or really meet the same level of dynamic play that they were known for in 2020, but that could change in a hurry. The health of Antavious Lane and Qua White will be important to monitor going forward. If those guys are right, then the Panthers should be fine. 

Where Do They Go From Here?

The season doesn’t get any easier from here, but this week offers Georgia State an opportunity to reset on a more level playing field. The Panthers are now 0-2 and welcome a 2-0 Charlotte team who already have a Power 5 win over Duke to their credit. In terms of competition level, playing a home game against a Conference USA opponent should be a better matchup for Georgia State. After this week, Georgia State heads over to Auburn and then they open Sun Belt play at home against Appalachian State. No one is overlooking their game against the 49ers, but the point of mentioning the next three weeks is to offer some perspective and remind what lies ahead. This emphasizes how important it is to get a good effort out of the Panthers on Saturday. If the Panthers are who they say they are, Quad plays better, the ground game kicks into gear, the hungry defense finds a way to get the job done and Georgia State gets their first win of the 2021 season. If for whatever reason they don’t, it might be a long one for the South Atlanta tenants of Center Parc Stadium.

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