As Clemson game nears, UNC is struggling. Here were some problems against App State.

Two weeks after beating Miami to start the season 2-0, North Carolina is struggling.

The Tar Heels got off to a slow start on Saturday, dug themselves into a hole, then rallied late in the game. But it wasn’t enough to overcome Appalachian State, which beat UNC, 34-31, at Kenan Stadium.

The slow starts and late-in-the-game comebacks are nothing new for UNC this season. Three of their four games this year have gone that same way. The Tar Heels trailed 20-9 entering the fourth quarter against South Carolina on Aug. 31, and were down 21-3 entering the fourth against Wake on Sept. 13. Against App State, UNC was down by 10, 34-24, at the end of the third quarter.

UNC has started a fourth quarter ahead of its opponent only once this season — when it had a one-point lead over Miami on Sept. 7.

The Tar Heels hoped to fix these issues before facing App State. But the reasons for the slow start can’t be attributed to just one thing. Low energy (against Wake) and turnovers (against App State) have plagued the Tar Heels this season.

“We’ve got to get them playing all the time instead of playing like this,” UNC coach Mack Brown told the media after Saturday’s game as he made an up and down motion with his hands. “That’s our job as coaches. (The players) are trying.”

UNC true freshman quarterback Sam Howell, who finished with career highs in touchdowns (four), completions (27), passing attempts (41) and passing yards (323), had three turnovers against App State. Two of them, which occurred in the first half, led to 14 points for the Mountaineers.

The third impeded what appeared to be a promising drive for UNC and a chance to cut App State’s deficit to three points with more than enough time on the clock to stage another comeback.

Howell, who has become known for his fourth quarter heroics, took responsibility for the loss.

“I made a couple mistakes in this game and it ended up costing us,” Howell said.

Missed comeback

Down by three with 30 seconds left in the game, the Tar Heels received the ball at their own 25-yard line, and had one last chance to tie or win the game.

They drove the ball to the App State 39-yard line with five seconds remaining, and sent kicker Noah Ruggles to attempt a 56-yard field goal to tie the game.

North Carolina kicker Noah Ruggles (97) misses a 56-yard attempt that would have tied the score, giving Appalachian State a 34-3 victory over North Carolina on Saturday, September 21, 2019 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

But the kick was blocked at the line of scrimmage and fell well short of the uprights.

When the clock expired, the Mountaineers rushed the field and celebrated at the Tar Heels’ logo. It was App State’s first win over a Power 5 opponent since its 34-32 upset over Michigan in 2007.

“It doesn’t sit well,” UNC junior linebacker Tomon Fox said of App State celebrating on his field. “If you’ve got someone on the opposing team dancing on our logo, it’s not cool. I mean, we can’t do nothing about it now. We should have took care of business on the field.”

Appalachian State’s Ryan Huff (21) and Demetrius Taylor (48) sack North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell (7) for a loss of three yards and force a fumble which North Carolina recovered in the third quarter on Saturday, September 21, 2019 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

Struggling to stop App State

When UNC’s offense did score, App State had an answer. The defense struggled to contain the Mountaineers at times. App State was 7 of 15 on third down against the Tar Heels.

In the first quarter on third-and-seven from the App State 35, App State quarterback Zac Thomas scrambled for a 50-yard run to the UNC 15. The Mountaineers scored three points on that drive.

In the fourth quarter, on third-and-five from the App State 30, with three minutes left, the Tar Heels needed a stop. But Thomas again scrambled 12 yards for a first down and eventually drained the clock to 30 seconds before Howell and the offense got the ball back.

“Third down is money down,” UNC senior safety Myles Dorn said. “You’ve got to get off the field.”

Slow start woes

After the game, UNC had few answers as to why it has continued to start slow. Only that it needs to fix the issues, and quick.

The Tar Heels will face their toughest game of the season next week when they take on No. 1 Clemson at home.

The Tigers, the national champs from last season, have won their first four games this season by an average of 30 points.

If the Tar Heels get themselves into a hole early in the game against the Tigers, the chances of them digging themselves out are not very good.

“Whew, we’ve got a challenge next week,” UNC senior defensive tackle Aaron Crawford said of Clemson, as if overwhelmed by the thought. “But they’re human. They bleed.”

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Jonathan M. Alexander has been covering the North Carolina Tar Heels since May 2018. He previously covered Duke basketball and recruiting in the ACC. He is an alumnus of N.C. Central University.
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