The game against the Flames was close until mid-way through the third quarter when UNC erupted for 28 points in less than four minutes of game time. Outside of that electric stretch the game was a good deal closer than most Tar Heel supporters would have thought. Indeed when Liberty took the lead early in the third quarter there was a palpable tension in Kenan Stadium. This game was definitely a mixed performance and as Coach Fedora said after the game, there's plenty of room to grow. And now on to the grades for the week:
This week's overall grade: B
The Tar Heels should have played much better for most of the game, there were many mistakes on both sides of the ball and that kept the Flames in the contest. On offense the Heels ran the ball well and really hurt the Flames on the ground. Running both between the tackles and to the outside looked excellent. The offensive line pulled well and opened up many holes into the second level of the defense that led to big gains. Special teams were mixed; on punts the team looked excellent except for one block in the back penalty but Ryan Switzer appeared to already be in mid season form. Field goal kicking is a place to watch out for though as the Heels missed their only try of the contest, a 44 yarder that Thomas Moore hit wide right. There was also the high snap that led to a safety which obviously needs to be improved upon in the future.
Avoiding turnovers grade: D
Going into this game UNC needed to limit their mistakes and not beat themselves, else Liberty would be able to keep it close. The turnovers early in the game killed the Heels through the first half and into the third quarter when Quinshad Davis' fumble was returned for a Liberty touchdown. Before this Marquise Williams had thrown two bad passes with led interceptions stalling UNC drives at inopportune times. Had those passes been thrown better, they could have led to points. Mitch Trubisky also threw a bad interception on an attempted screen pass that the Liberty defensive line read well. There will be a separate piece going up soon detailing quarterback play as a permanent starter is still yet to be announced.
The Heels put the ball on the ground three additional times but were lucky to avoid worse outcomes by recovering them. In future games the Heels can not be this cavalier with the football. ACC teams as well as the rest of the schedule are all going to be better equipped to cause mayhem than the Flames. The main way to resolve turnovers is improved quarterback play, each interception was preventable and inexcusable considering the context it was thrown in. The Heels also can not rely on continued fumble recovery luck (they recovered 7 of the 8 fumbles in the game). Simple fundamentals like taking care of the football will make this team much better farther on into the season.
Focusing on the passing game (offense and defense): A
This was arguably the best performance the Heels submitted during the game. The defense compensated relatively well considering the suspensions to the corners. Coverage improved greatly in the second half, during which the coaching staff shifted to more zone coverages than man (in the first half they ran more man coverage than zone). This change was most notable on Jeff Schoettmer's pick-6. On that play he dropped off the line of scrimmage into pass coverage, completely surprising Liberty QB Josh Woodrum. That being said man coverage was soft throughout most of the first half and if not for many Liberty drops, the Heels could have been in trouble. Against even SDSU, the man coverage will have to improve, but it should when the secondary is returned to full strength.
The pass rush was the best defensive unit on the field. The Heels got pressure with four and five man rushes, rarely having to blitz at all. Carolina committed four down linemen and the Bandit to rushing the passer and they could not be stopped. The few blitzes the Heels ran resulted in sacks and immense pressure on the quarterback. Woodrum never had time to throw all game and that was a huge help to the secondary. Liberty was forced to have their whole offensive line chop block on multiple plays in the second half just to guarantee that Woodrum would be able to throw at all. Because of that, plays could never develop much for the Flames before the Heel defense was back on their feet and coming at Woodrum. With a more experienced and better secondary behind them, the pass rush could be a force this season.
Most of the notes concerning the Carolina passing attack will be in the next piece about quarterback play. However it is important to note that Carolina continued to have a consistently threatening passing attack. In particular screen passes were very effective. Wide receivers held their blocks well and this allowed for multiple bubble screens. To open the four minute points explosion the Heels ran an excellent bubble screen to Mack Hollins on the left side for a nice seven yard gain, they ran the exact same play on the next snap for a 33 yard touchdown. The offensive line also showed their mobility when they got up-field for several half back screens that went for large games. Against better teams look for the Heels to have a much more expansive screen game in their offense.
Stopping the run without using a 7 or 8 man front: B-
This was the biggest weakness of the first half that became the biggest strength of the second half. Throughout the first half the Flames were able to pick up large chunks of yardage on the ground against the Heels. This was sometimes successful against 8 man fronts in I-formation packages. Frankly in the first half UNC needed to outnumber the linemen if they were to have any hope of bottling up run plays. The defensive line was completely unable to move up the field to disrupt runs in the backfield. Linebackers and safeties were asked to do much of the tackling, and while they were up for the challenge, the Flames moved the chains far too easily on the ground. This completely changed in the second half. The Carolina defensive linemen hit the gaps much harder and more effectively on the other side of halftime. Their constant presence in the backfield crippled the Flame's rushing attack and offense while providing the additional benefit of forcing three fumbles. It's also important to note that throughout the game the Heels subbed their entire front seven in and out multiple times. While this kept their players fresh it also put weaker players on the field and will be an interesting aspect of the defense if it continues throughout the season.
If the defensive line continues its play from the second half of this game into the rest of the season then the defense should be good to go. However, the main worry is that against better offensive lines the defensive line will be pushed around as they were in the first half. That would be a huge problem for the Tar Heel defense and one that all UNC fans need to keep an eye on going forward.
All in all the game against Liberty was a good tune-up. The Heels know what to focus on in practice this week and they showed flashes of dominance, particularly during their explosion in the third quarter. The pass rush is already in place and if a quality run defense joins the, then this could really become a complete team that could make some noise in the ACC coastal.