1. Coach Paul Johnson had it about right: “I feel like I’ve been gut punched.” It was a pretty brutal loss, particularly given the circumstances: Having lost two in a row, playing a division opponent at home and going from from leading 21-0 with 4:34 left in the second quarter to losing 38-31. And the long series of could-have-been plays that dot the final 34:34 obviously make it that much more difficult to bear for Tech.
2. After taking the 21-0 lead, the offense didn’t stop moving the ball, necessarily. Yards per play by quarter: 5.6, 4.7, 6.9, 4.2. (The fourth-quarter average is obviously a bit of a dive, but if you take out one play – quarterback Justin Thomas’ fumble – it would be 4.7, which, granted, isn't high octane, but isn't going backwards, either. Which leads me to my point.)
While the Jackets still made progress on offense, North Carolina played bigger at numerous junctures, or Tech fell short, or both, particularly after the first drive of the third quarter, when Tech returned the lead to 28-17 with an easy four-play, 43-yard touchdown drive.
On the next series, the Jackets were denied after setting up with first-and-goal from the 6-yard line, including two shots from the 1-yard line. Thomas fumbled the ball away on the next drive. A toss play on third-and-2 on the next drive was botched.
“Definitely, it’s frustrating when a lot of small things up,” guard Trey Braun said.
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3. A week after the Jackets defense started slow and turned the water off on Duke for the final three quarters, Tech reversed course Saturday. The Jackets forced punts on the first two Tar Heels series, and then UNC heated up – touchdown, touchdown, field goal, touchdown, punt, touchdown, touchdown.
In a game of big plays, maybe none was as big as the touchdown pass off the reverse from wide receiver Quinshad Davis to quarterback Marquise Williams, a play that appeared to catch the Jackets completely off guard, although it’s been in the Tar Heels' arsenal.
“I think that play is 100 percent for us,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said. “We’ve used it multiple times the past three years.”
4. It’s probably not a popular opinion, but I believe this team could still finish well. I mean, I think it's pretty clear that all hopes of a season resembling 2014 are out the window, but that doesn't mean the year is a wash.
There’s a lot of players on the offense that are still pretty raw – consider that A-back Mikell Lands-Davis was on the field for the final drive in the first game of his career – that figure to be better by November.
The defense is showing signs of getting better. I think part of what happened Saturday is that, with not much depth, players got worn out against North Carolina’s tempo. I imagine the fact that the Jackets lost colors the outlook on the final seven games (which is hardly unreasonable). But, the game was maybe two plays from having a different outcome, maybe even one play.
The feeling instead might be, “Tech escaped, got a big win, showed character and got better.” But instead it’s “This team is cooked.”
Clearly, there’s problems to solve, and some things that maybe can’t be fully addressed even by season's end. There aren’t any pills that Brad Stewart or Clinton Lynch can take that will turn them into DeAndre Smelter or Deon Hill. Not this year, at any rate. This isn’t to suggest they're the problem. But they’re inexperienced players, which the offense has across the depth chart, and they won’t be seniors for three more years.
The challenge for the team now is getting players to embrace the challenge of finishing strong in a season that began with the highest of hopes. And, frankly, finishing strong may not necessarily mean a particular record, given the remaining schedule, but just strong indications of improvement. But if the challenge isn't taken, with the schedule ahead of the Jackets, things could continue heading south.