What a difference a week makes in college football.
Just last week, UNC played one of its best games in the Larry Fedora era in a 45-20 dismantling of Duke. The Tar Heels were well-prepared, disciplined, and played extremely hard against a fierce rival in a game that wasn't really as close as the final score indicated.
Then this week happened.
The pendulum swung completely to the other side as NC State completely dominated Carolina on both sides of the ball. UNC was listless and was pushed around literally and figuratively in a 35-7 defeat that was again not as close as the score indicated. One of the best games of Fedora's tenure was followed by arguably one of the worst, certainly from a statistical standpoint.
It was pretty clear from the opening possession that it was going to be a long day for UNC as they offered little resistance while State marched down the field for an easy touchdown. Then State clamped down on defense while the UNC offense couldn't get much rhythm going. The Pack manhandled the Heels up front and made it a long day for UNC's skill players.
It's easy to point the fingers at the defense, but in all fairness, they did only give up 457 yards and 35 points. It's weird to say "only" 457 and 35 but this season the defense has given up more in both categories and Carolina has still won. It was the offense that never showed today, much like the Virginia Tech game in Kenan last month.
You have to give a lot of credit to State and its simple game plan. On offense, they pounded the ball on the ground and didn't test UNC's oft-maligned secondary too much, choosing to take the simple routes that were there on nearly every play. Defensively they kept UNC's running game bottled up and threw wave after wave of pressure at Marquise Williams, eventually knocking him out of the game in the 3rd quarter. UNC's game plan was much harder to discern. In fact, I'm not sure I can identify what UNC was trying to do against the Pack except they kept trying the home run ball that never seemed to be there.
Given that you have to try to find the good in every situation, I will endeavor to find something to praise in this week's GBU Report:
Tommy Hibbard: Well, it should tell you something when you lead off the "Good" section with your punter. The senior placed three of his six kicks inside the 20 and another at the 20, and only two were even attempted to be returned, for a total of minus one yard. Hibbard has had an All-ACC caliber season but in a league filled with quality punters, he will likely be overlooked.
Quinshad Davis: The junior wide receiver provided the lone offensive highlight of the day, catching a 13-yard touchdown pass from Mitch Trubisky to end the shutout. With the reception, Davis tied Hakeem Nicks for first place on the career touchdown receiving list with 21.
Marquise Williams: Before going out with a leg injury in the 3rd quarter, the junior quarterback quite simply stunk. He was never in any kind of rhythm in the passing game, either sailing balls over receivers' heads or short-hopping them at their feet. Then again, he didn't have a lot of time to throw and it didn't help that UNC kept throwing downfield rather than the short, quick-strike game that allows quarterbacks to get some confidence. Williams was a paltry 11-22 for 97 yards and an interception, and rushed 16 times for only 11 yards. On a day where he could have made a real case for ACC Player of the Year with Jameis Winston's 4-interception showing, Williams was not very good.
The numbers game: Name a stat that shows how a game goes and UNC was on the wrong side of it. The Heels were out-gained 457-207 (a record low under Fedora at UNC) and held to 7 points (also a Fedora era low), trailed in time of possession almost 39 minutes to 21, and lost two turnovers to State's zero. The Pack was also 9-15 on 3rd down and was 5 for 5 in the red zone, while UNC only sniffed the red zone twice. Total domination.
Field goal kicking: Probably should go in the "Ugly" category but this is what we thought it was and has been all season. Senior kicker Thomas Moore hooked a 35-yarder in the second quarter that would have cut the score to 7-3 and stopped the bleeding. Carolina's lack of kick options really handcuffs the offense.
Tackling: Again, this is what we thought it was, but it had seemed to be improving a little bit anyway. Still it was front and center on a day when lots of things went wrong.
Rushing game: As UNC discovered the past two weeks, the offense works best when the rushing attack is working. State wholly shut down the running game as T.J. Logan and Romar Morris never got anything going, nor could Marquise Williams do much either. Carolina only netted 30 yards on 28 rushing attempts, and the RBs only notched 10 carries.
Defensive front: After steadily improving all season, this group was simply blown up by State's offensive line. They put practically zero pressure on Jacoby Brissett, allowing him to go 9-11 passing for the day. Perhaps the worst example of this was on the Shadrach Thornton touchdown in the second quarter, the State O-line moved the Heels like they were a blocking sled and Thornton went in untouched.
Offensive line: Not to put too fine a point on it, but State embarrassed the poor Carolina offensive line. They were blown up early and often and opened no holes for the running backs nor did they protect their quarterback. As one fan sitting near me said, "I know they're wearing red, but they're not Alabama". There was one sequence in particular that I tweeted about during the game:
Image of the game so far: 3 Pack defenders swarming Williams while 3 UNC O-linemen stand alone with no blocks 5 yards away.— Doc Kennedy (@DocHeelfire) November 29, 2014
That was the O-line's day in a nutshell right there.
Coaching and preparation: As much as I had to give credit for the coaching staff's preparation for Duke, they were clearly not ready for NC State. On the one hand, I tend to stay away from this because coaches can do everything they can to prepare a team and at the end of the day you are relying on 20 year-old kids to execute a game plan. Sometimes things just blow up in spite of a coach's efforts. On the other hand, you have to feel like the coaches are doing something to make adjustments and adapt to the game at hand. That did not seem to happen on Saturday, which is unusual given that UNC has responded well to being down all year. As Brian pointed out during the game:
NCSU has given up 30, 30, 41, 56 and 56 in five ACC games this season but is shutting UNC down.— Brian Barbour (@tarheelblog) November 29, 2014
Again, all credit to State but Carolina's performance against a mediocre Wolfpack team is as inexplicable as it is inexcusable, especially given the focus Fedora placed on State and ending the losing streak his first two years in Chapel Hill.
And so there you have it, the latest chapter in a wildly inconsistent year in Chapel Hill. Carolina finished just about as .500 as you can get: 6-6 overall, 4-4 in the ACC. The defense let the team down in a couple of those losses, but the offense did so against Virginia Tech and against State. The wild swings from big wins to crushing losses then back again are enough to make Tar Heel fans seasick. Plus the egg laid against the Pack is the lasting memory come bowl selection time, since Carolina may have fallen to the Independence Bowl or even worse, out of the bowl picture altogether since the ACC has more bowl-eligible teams than tie-ins. This time last year, UNC fans were happy to be bowling given the 1-5 start and celebrating the team's resilience. This year is disappointment as the team stumbles into the postseason with the corner to be turned still as far away as it ever was.