The Heels went to South Bend and played a respectable game against the Fighting Irish. The Heels submitted their best performance of the season against the #5 team in the nation. The game was close until late and the Heels had a chance to tie or win if they had recovered the onside kick at the end of the game. Ultimately, the Heel's efforts were fruitless but this game showed many encouraging signs, as the Heels move into the second half of the season.
On to the grades:
Moving the ball on offense: A-
The Heels racked up 510 yards of total offense, and they did it without a play longer than 41 yards. Carolina moved the ball in a variety of ways involving Marquise Williams (Williams had 89.8% of all Carolina yards in this game). Williams showed superior decision making skills in the read option, elusiveness as a runner, good arm strength and surprisingly good hands as a receiver. Unfortunately Williams also had the crucial mistake of the game, throwing an interception late on a shovel pass that took the Heels out of the game. Ryan Switzer was involved in a few jet sweeps that were nice changes of pace. The offense appeared to implement Fedora's system the way he wants, the varying tempo caught Notre Dame off guard and definitely let the Heels get even more yards. The trick plays were quite possibly the nicest surprise in this game, they were both effective and exciting. However, the Heel's issues with inconsistency remain, one drive the Heels will push all the way down the field quickly, but the next, they will stall out immediately and be forced to punt.
While this game did not answer all of the doubts concerning the coaching staff, it did answer a lot. Additionally, it showed that the coaching staff can learn from past mistakes. The coaching staff showed early on in this game that they were making better decisions than in previous weeks; they committed to Elijah Hood as the primary running back (not named Marquise Williams) and most notably, kept Mitch Trubisky on the sidelines for the entire game. Play calling in this game was still curious, most notably in the red zone. Multiple times near the goal line, the coaching staff dialed up plays that had very limited potential. On one goal line series the Heels came out in the heavy set for four plays (they were given a new set of downs by a defensive penalty on ND). After a few unsuccessful attempts, why go back to the heavy formation? Why would it suddenly work? Also on a 3rd and goal with about 7 yards to go the coaches called a QB keeper before kicking a field goal. Its play calls like this that prevent the coaches from both earning the trust of fans and getting the highest grade here. The trick plays were all well drawn up and executed, the coaches deserve credit for that and for structuring the game on offense in a way that enabled the team to succeed. The coaches should still focus on eliminating dumb penalties (the roughing the snapper penalty might have lost the game for the Heels as much as anything else) and on telling Ryan Switzer to fair catch some punts (he's only going to turn the ball over more or get hurt, neither of which is helpful).
The offensive pace is still worrisome. All coaches make weird and dumb personnel mistakes. That is true at every level and across all sports, so allowing the Mitch Trubisky adventure to continue for as long as it has and the lack of commitment to a single running back are not particularly egregious. However, what no coach can have is a lack of a Plan B. Throughout this season, Larry Fedora and the coaching staff have not shown that they have a Plan B on offense outside of their normal scheme. Going into this season, the defense was known to be the weakness of this team and the offense to be its strength. Knowing those things, the coaching staff still chose to adopt a game plan that involves the offense moving as fast a possible while the defense is on the field for longer stretches than necessary each week. This makes no sense and is the fundamental problem with the coaching this year. Against Notre Dame, Plan A (hurry hurry hurry) worked; the Fighting Irish were obviously confused and struggled with communication on defense. But against ECU, Clemson and VT Plan A did not work and it may not work against other teams this season. In the future when Plan A does not work, the coaching staff needs to show all of us that it has, and can execute, a Plan B.
Defense/Special Teams: B
Special teams were unremarkable, the shaky kicking situation reared its head again, with Nick Weiler missing a 32 yard field goal. The main critique with special teams is that Ryan Switzer needs to fair catch punts, and that Switzer could be used well as a kick returner. The defense started the game as well as could be possibly hoped, forcing a fumble and interception. The issues with tackling from the first few games of the season appear to have been mostly fixed. It appeared as if the defense was pushed around by a really good offense for most of the game. That is neither unexpected nor particularly bad.
This was a game where the defense played fairly close to expecations. Going into this game everyone expected a blowout, and the defense gave up more than 500 yards and 50 points. The defense forced 3 turnovers and kept the Heels close enough. If the roughing the snapper penalty never happened, the Heels may have actually won this game and Marquise Williams' interception was not caused by the defense. The defense did not lose the game for Carolina, which this season is about all that can be hoped for against good teams.