UNC got off to another sluggish start, fell behind by two touchdowns in the second half before rallying to take a 31-27 win over San Diego State.
The dominant question for most of the game is where was the Tar Heel offense? The first half marked one of the poorer efforts in terms of production during the Larry Fedora era. UNC managed just 108 yards of total offense prior to halftime with 54 of those yards coming on the first Tar Heel series of the game. Nothing UNC did worked and the offensive line, as a unit. struggled to win the trenches.
While the offense struggled, the defense played marginally better and even provided the game's first points. After the Aztecs put together an 83-yard drive to get deep into Tar Heel territory, pressure from linebacker Jeff Schoettmer on Aztec QB Quinn Kaehler forced a bad throw on 2nd and goal from the six. Cornerback Brian Walker, fresh off his one game suspension for his role in the Aloft hotel incident, picked off the high pass and returned it 100 yards for a touchdown.
Ideally stealing a team's cookies after they had driven 83-yards and was on the verge of scoring should work heavily in your favor. UNC had momentum and a play like that could have let the air out of the Aztec balloon. That wasn't the case. In fact over the next almost two quarters of play, San Diego State played like the team who had just gotten the big touchdown while UNC fell apart. The Aztecs struck quickly to tie the game with a 56-yard touchdown pass from Kaehler to Eric Judge who blew by M.J. Stewart on his way to the end zone.
Things went from teetering on the edge of something awful to, well, awful. Larry Fedora went to Mitch Trubisky for a series and the redhshirt freshman threw an interception on a tipped ball giving the Aztecs possession deep in the Tar Heel end of the field. After seemingly getting a stop on 3rd and five, Tar Heel DT Tyler Powell was flagged for a personal foul. The penalty gave San Diego State a first down which led to a touchdown and a 14-7 lead. Three additional UNC possessions in the first half produced just 21 yards sending the Heels to the locker room down by a touchdown.
The second half started out in promising fashion with UNC driving into Aztec territory and then settling for a Thomas Moore field goal attempt from 41 yards. Moore missed, his eighth in ten tries from 40 yards or more. Moore's futility at that distance begs the question why Fedora continues to use him in that kind of situation. Given those odds serious consideration should probably be given to whether there is a 20% or better chance of converting on 4th and 5.
San Diego State wasted little time tightening its grip on the game with the next drive going 76 yards on seven plays to take a 21-7 lead. Not only were the Aztecs effective on offense but doing so in methodical fashion. San Diego State ended the game with an almost 15 minute advantage in time of possession. Granted, UNC's offense doesn't lend itself to winning that stat however that kind of gap points to the Aztecs controlling the game not to mention UNC lacking opportunities to score.
Like last week against Liberty, the Heels opted to wait until around midway through the third quarter to get kick things in gear. Following the Aztec score, UNC embarked on a 65-yard drive which included three conversions on third down and another on fourth and seven. Marquise Williams was a huge factor in the drive using his legs to get nine yards on 4th and 7 then finding Quinshad Davis on an 11-yard touchdown pass to close the gap to seven. The Aztecs responded with a field goal to make it 24-14.
At this point. with UNC facing a ten point deficit, the coaching staff finally opened the offense up and looked downfield. After a holding penalty on the kickoff put the Heels at the nine, Williams founds Mack Hollins in stride for a 91-yard touchdown strike to make it 24-21. This was UNC's first big play of the season and only the second time UNC has even looked to stretch the field. Last week against Liberty, the attempt to do so was underthrown by Williams resulting in an interception. That wasn't the case this time as Williams threw the ball right on target.
As was the case all game San Diego State responded, this time with a field goal for a six point lead. What followed was UNC's best offensive possession of the game thanks in large part to the play of Marquise Williams and some help from Ryan Switzer. Williams completed four passes for 65 yards including one to Switzer who used his customary shiftiness to elude two Aztec defenders for a 24-yard gain. When Williams wasn't throwing it, he was using his legs to both get rushing yards and create opportunities to throw the football. UNC recaptured the lead at 28-27 on Elijah Hood's first career touchdown.
Then Brian Walker showed up again, snagging his second interception of the game and putting the Heels in position to salt the game away. With UNC facing 3rd and 1 at the Aztec five yard line and just after Hood had bulled his way for five yards, UNC opted to throw a screen pass to Bug Howard which was covered by the Aztecs for a loss. The choice of play there was rather inexplicable, especially given UNC's backfield personnel. Someone among Williams, Hood or T.J. Logan should be able to get one yard yet UNC went with a screen pass and ultimately had to settle for a four point lead via a Nick Welier field goal.
Now think back to last season when UNC played Miami. It was a night game in Chapel Hill and the Tar Heels held a tenuous lead with the opposing team having plenty of time to both kill the clock and score the game-winning touchdown. Just like clockwork that scenario started to play itself out all over again. UNC had no answer for the Aztecs as they marched down the field converting three third downs, one of them a 3rd and 10. The Aztecs made it all the way to the UNC three yard line and was poised to drive the dagger in when Tim Scott, who had his share of troubles last week, became this week's hero. Scott cut in front of Quinn Kaehler's pass intended for the back of the end zone to snag a game-sealing interception. It was UNC's third interception of the game and the ninth forced turnover of the season.
So UNC survives a closer than expected game. Like last week, the offense is a source of concern especially the lack of consistency and sluggish starts. The Tar Heels' struggles in the first half created a crater that was almost to large to overcome. The defense wasn't great but also had several lapses. The inopportune penalties, two of which turned stops into Aztec first downs, continue to haunt this team. Similar to last Saturday it feels very much like a mixed bag. There are glimpses of good things and UNC did show resiliency and toughness to rally for the win. For much of the game it felt like San Diego State had everything going the right direction. For the Tar Heels to pull out the win says something about intangibles even if the football aspects aren't very rosy. Still, there are enough outright lapses and questions which make it difficult to know how the Heels will perform or trust them in games even if UNC is favored.
In other words, 2014 will continue to be a wild ride.