Coach Fedora began his post-game press conference with a simple statement, "We got a win, that's all I can say." That is the most positive take from the narrow victory against the Aztecs in which the Heels both made plays and mistakes. The offense was churning along fine on some possessions but completely stalled on others. The defense won the game for the Heels but only because its previous performance required it to do so. From this mixed performance there are many take-aways but the most important one is that, in the words of coach Fedora, "We're nowhere close to our potential."
The offense deserves a lot of credit for its performance, especially in the second half. Marquise Williams looked much better than last week and showed flashes of top tier talent; flashes that were lacking against Liberty. What were most impressive about Williams' game was his arm strength and self-confidence. Not a single one of Williams' attempts were forced and when there were no options he tucked the ball and ran. There were no Aztec sacks and Williams became the Heels leading rusher with 64 yards on 12 attempts. Williams continued to showcase his awareness and decision making skills. These are enabled by his self-confidence, he has faith in the decisions he makes and his commitment to them resulted in hard, downhill running that earned the Heels extra yards. Williams' arm strength was also exceptional. He made throws on the run that were accurate, threw perfectly weighted a deep ball to Mack Hollins for the 91 yard touchdown and hit Quinshad Davis perfectly on his 11 yard touchdown strike. All of Williams throws left the pocket crisply, with excellent form and found their targets. When contrasted to the performance of Mitch Trubisky, who ran one series and forced another screen pass that resulted in a pick, Williams shone, proving the correctness of Fedora's decision to play Williams nearly full-time. And now, for the weekly assignments:
Quarterback Pressure: A-
The pass rush continued to be one of the bright spots for the team. The defensive line penetrated well into the backfield on passing plays. The team would get a perfect score for this except that they only got one sack on Aztec QB Quinn Kaehler during the game. The penetration on screens was well done and there were many hits on Kaehler as well as constant pressure. All three of the interceptions were called by putting pressure on Kaehler and forcing him into throws. On each of the interceptions Kaehler's lack of arm strength was shown and his throwing technique noticeably decayed when he was under pressure. The pass rush was critical in the Heels winning the game.
Run Defense: D
This was the Heel's weakness the entire game. The Heels could not do anything consistently in preventing the Aztec running attack. The main issue in the game was that the defensive line's penetration into the backfield was wildly inconsistent. Throughout the game the Heels playing in the formation that worked well in the second half of the Liberty game, moving the Mike Linebacker, Jeff Schoettmer, up towards the line of scrimmage as nearly a 5th lineman. This worked initially, but the Aztecs adjusted their blocking schemes to compensate and this advantage was quickly nullified. For the next two and a half quarters the run defense was terrible. There were multiple plays where the Aztec running backs, Donnel Pumphrey and Chase Price, gained at least five yards against seven or eight man fronts.
If the Heels want to have a truly impressive season and win something close to nine games they must be able to stop the run, especially in heavy sets where there's seven or eight men near the line of scrimmage. The other critical weakness of the run defense was an inability to tackle on the first try. Coach Fedora mentioned this in his post-game press conference saying that in the two weeks before the ECU game the team will work a lot on fundamentals. If the tackling and run defense in general do not take great strides games against Clemson, Notre Dame and Virginia Tech in particular could get downright ugly for the Heels. The run defense avoids a failing grade because on several plays it showed that it can be a force. There were multiple tackles in the backfield by both linemen and linebackers, showing that, if they play to their potential on every snap, the run defense can be just as good as the pass rush.
Preventing Big Passing Plays: C+
While they did allow a 56 yard touchdown pass to Erick Judge in the second quarter and a 59 yard catch to Ezell Ruffin the secondary held up against the deep ball when they needed to. The two big plays are not the main reason that the grade is low. The two big plays forced the defense to play more conservatively. The first big play, the touchdown, was a busted coverage, over the course of a game and season these are inevitable. The second big pass the secondary conceded was much worse in terms of impact on the rest of the game. On that play the Carolina defensive backs just got beat. This is more troublesome considering that they caught up to Ruffin and eventually made the tackle, showing they have the speed to have stayed with Ruffin in the first place. Those are the kinds of mistakes that Carolina has to avoid in future games; they can not just mess up in coverage like that. It is one thing to mistake the play and think you have safety help when you do not, such as on the touchdown pass; but it is another thing completely to fail in coverage when you clearly possess the skills necessary to eliminate the receiver as a target.
What the second play did was force the Heels to play deep safety zones for much of the rest of the game. This allowed for all of the crisscrossing in and out routes that kept giving the Aztecs seven to eleven yards at a time. These are also the throws that suit the Aztec offense the best; highlighting Kaehler's decision making and hiding his relative lack of arm strength. Because of the Heel's weakness when attempting to limit the deep ball the bread and butter of the Aztec offense opened up. The defensive adjustments were successful in eliminating the deep ball, all further attempts down the field after the Ruffin catch were broken up and many were nearly intercepted. This proved crucial late in the game as the Aztecs were forced into check downs and other sub-optimal options as they tried to maneuver into the end zone, setting Kaehler up for his game-ending interception.
All in all the Heels played well for stretches and terribly for others. Those inconsistencies will kill the Heels against better teams, including the ECU Pirates in two weeks. That being said the effort was there and the team did eke out a win. The offense is maturing nicely and is definitely a potent weapon going forward. The defense clearly has no issue forcing turnovers when they need them most. It is important to remember that this San Diego State team was very good, winning a bowl last year, and that this is a strong result despite a lackluster approach to achieving it.
Grade for the Week: B