For once, this one wasn't on the defense.
After giving up 120 points and 1400 yards of total offense the past two weeks, UNC settled down on the defensive end and held Virginia Tech to 34 points and only 357 yards of offense. The problem was the offense picked a fine time to get the yips and after putting up 76 points and over 900 yards of its own the last two weeks, sputtered to an anemic 323 yards and only 17 points. That and coughing the ball up three times that led to 21 VT points made for a miserable day for the Tar Heels on an otherwise gorgeous Saturday afternoon in Kenan Stadium.
Carolina's offensive struggles at home have been a little perplexing, given that the Heels were not exactly burning it up against Liberty and San Diego State either. In fact, it was the much-maligned defense that kept UNC around in those two games until the offense could get up to speed. Against VT, however, the offense's self-inflicted damage made it entirely too easy for the otherwise offensively-challenged Hokies. The hole was just too deep and Carolina never recovered.
With that in mind, here is the missed opportunities edition of the GBU Report:
Overall Defense: Yes there were still blown assignments and poor tacking, especially early, but the defense did enough to give UNC a more than fighting chance to win the game. The unit generated three sacks, seven tackles for loss, and an interception that led to a touchdown. For all the cries of "fire everybody" after the ECU debacle, the Carolina defense has improved week-to-week since then.
Tommy Hibbard: UNC's senior punter continues to be a real weapon for the Heels. As Brian tweeted, UNC will have at least one All-ACC performer, and that is Hibbard. Hibbard put three of his punts inside the 20 and two more were over 50 yards.
Marquise Williams: Statistically there is not much else the junior quarterback could have done to put his team on his shoulders and carry the load. Williams rushed a career-high 19 times for 94 yards (he was actually +135 if you throw out the five sacks) and threw for 187 yards and a touchdown. That means Williams was responsible for 281 of UNC's 323 yards.
Quinshad Davis: The junior wide receiver had three catches for 54 yards and a touchdown, and is now 3rd on UNC's all-time touchdown reception list.
Ryan Switzer, Receiver: The sophomore wideout led the Tar Heels with 5 catches for 67 yards.
Ryan Switzer, Punt Returner: The shine is off Switzer as an electric punt returner. Other teams have kicked away from him or tried to pin him to the sidelines. The Hokies, who take pride in their special teams, punted right to him in the middle of the field. Switzer had a return on six of the seven VT punts and gained a total of seven yards. Given that he gained eight on one return, the other five returns netted minus one yard. Plus the normally sure-handed Switzer muffed a punt that led to the final VT touchdown, although to be fair a hand injury may have contributed to the fumble.
Penalties: The Tar Heels had 10 penalties for 62 yards, which is actually an improvement over their season averages. This is bumped up to the "Bad" category only because, except for one VT scoring drive in the second quarter, these were mostly not of the galactically stupid variety. But there were still crippling penalties in all three phases of the game that you would expect to see being weeded out by the fifth game.
Fedora's Love Affair with Playing Mitch Trubisky: This is the topic du jour among the media talking heads as well as many frustrated Carolina fans. Larry Fedora has stubbornly stuck with his rotation of sticking the freshman quarterback in on the third series of each game, regardless of time, score, or game flow. After a turnover on the first play of the game that led to an easy Hokie score, Marquise Williams led UNC right down the field and only some questionable play-calling likely kept the Heels out of the end zone, as they had to settle for a chip-shot field goal. Like clockwork, Trubisky marched out on the next possession and promptly gave up a 3-and-out. It could be debated that since the first series was only one play, Fedora could have left Williams in and gone to Trubisky on technically the fourth possession, but the feeling is that the switch killed any offensive momentum Carolina might have had, as even the next three possessions with Williams at QB resulted in only 17 yards on 12 plays. So, looking for a spark, Fedora sticks Trubisky back in, who quickly leads the offense to two first downs on three plays before staring down a receiver and tossing a pick-six that essentially broke UNC's back. Trubisky's interception has received a lot of attention due to its timing but ultimately did not have any more impact than Williams' and Switzer's fumbles that led to easy Hokie scores.
While the conventional wisdom says the QB rotation belongs in the "Ugly" category, I don't have as much of a problem with it on principle as I do on execution. If you want to steal a series here and there for Trubisky, that's fine. And if you're playing him as a spark, as Fedora suggested after the game, then frankly it's not like Williams was tearing it up in the second quarter. But being a slave to the third series rotation lets every opponent know what you're doing. Plus, Trubisky's performance hasn't really earned him more than one series per game, if that. Then again, as we often say in basketball season when Roy Williams sticks guys in and we all scratch our collective heads, we're not in practice and seeing what the coaches see. Maybe Trubisky is playing well in practice but he clearly does not look any better in week five than he did in week one and I think Tar Heel Nation would be happy to see him hold a clipboard a little more.
Turnovers: Three turnovers, 21 points. Just the points off turnovers were enough for Virginia Tech to win given UNC's anemic offensive output. Williams was sacked and fumbled on the first play of the game inside the UNC 20, Trubisky threw the pick-six, and Switzer fumbled at the UNC 10. Even though UNC's defense was playing much better, the Hokies only had to go 26 yards for two TDs and scored a third on defense. That made it far too easy for a VT team that was struggling some on offense, allowing them to go conservative and chew up the clock with 57 rushing attempts. Of course the cruel irony for UNC is that turnovers had not been a big problem for them this year.
Running Game: UNC's running backs - perhaps the most talented position group on the team - had 15 yards on nine carries. Let that sink in a little bit. As Turner Walston at GoHeels.com points out, T.J. Logan, high school All-American, had eight yards on four carries. Elijah Hood, high school All-American, had four yards on three carries. Romar Morris, top-30 recruit, had four yards on two carries. Khris Francis, top-30 recruit, didn't have a carry. Yes the offensive line is a mess and Bud Foster's defense was a key part but nine carries by the tailbacks on 66 plays is troubling.
Offensive Line: You hate to pile on a group of guys when they are down, but the weak link of the team is being exposed, and is not getting better week-to-week. Poor John Ferranto is just getting abused at left tackle, and Kiaro Holts is showing why he was buried on the depth chart before being pressed into service due to the injury to Jon Heck. Even the return of Landon Turner could not settle down this unit, as evidenced by the bad snaps by Lucas Crowley. The O-line gave up five sacks and seven tackles for loss. Ouch.
Third and fourth-down conversions: UNC was 2 for 13 on third down and 0 for 4 on fourth down. A lot of that had to do with being behind the sticks as one out of every 5.5 plays was a loss. Add to that the offensive line struggles and it's hard to get anything going.
All you can ask for a struggling team is to get better each week, and it's hard to say that about the Tar Heels overall. After five games there still has not been a complete effort on both sides of the ball. The defensive improvement had given hope UNC would be right there to compete with VT, but the offense picked a fine time to vanish. The road doesn't get any easier as now Carolina gets to go on the road at a top-10 Notre Dame team. The window is closing quickly for the Heels to salvage the season.