UNC knocked off Virginia on Saturday 26-13. Here are a few thoughts on that.
A win is a win is a win
With the way this season has unfolded, UNC is now in a neck-and-neck race for the Coastal Division with Duke and Pittsburgh. That means every game, including this one versus Virginia, is very much a must-win scenario. To use the college basketball parlance, the Tar Heels had a survive-and-advance kind of game today.
Heading into it, this game had trap written all over it. Virginia had struggled to a 2-4 mark this season. The statistical picture featured all sorts of advantages for UNC and the Tar Heels had just a five day turnaround before seeing fellow ACC unbeaten Pittsburgh on Thursday. All that made this the perfect game for the Tar Heels be caught looking and squander precious win.
As the contest wore on and Virginia continued to hang around there came a point where UNC needed to step up and make plays to seize control of the game. The first of those moments was a Sam Smiley interception to end Virginia's first drive of the second half. The Tar Heels got just three points from that but it kept Virginia from potentially taking the lead. The Tar Heels managed a second stop then put together a hard nosed drive using Elijah Hood and Marquise Williams. The nearly six minute drive was capped off by a Hood run from three yards out to give the Tar Heels a 23-13 lead. On the drive Hood rushed for 31 of his 101 yards while Williams eight yard rush on 3rd and 6 at the UVa 11 set the stage for Hood's early fourth quarter score.
Despite committing 12 penalties during the game, two turnovers and the offense sputtering at times, the Tar Heels came up with enough winning plays to take care of Virginia. In league play it's like that sometimes and UNC took care of business.
Another slow start
For the fourth straight game, UNC found itself trailing in the first quarter with three of those coming at home. In theory, playing in front of the home crowd would lead to faster starts, especially on offense. That hasn't been the case. One of the primary factors in UNC's falling behind early is a failure to take care of the ball. Four of UNC's seven opening drives this season have ended with a turnover, three of those on Williams interceptions.
To this point UNC has not faced the type of teams that can really make the Tar Heels pay for giving away the advantage early. From an offensive standpoint, UNC has not forced teams to play from behind out of the gate. The offense has been slow to get rolling and while the Tar Heels' ability to put up points in droves has mitigated the early droughts, relying on that may prove foolhardy against better defensive team.
On the defensive side of the ball, UNC has a tendency to get gashed in the first half but figure things out after halftime. To this point this has been too troublesome for the Tar Heels given the offense has the ability to overcome even 21 point deficits in Atlanta. However UNC's schedule takes a turn now towards teams that have the ability to exploit UNC's defensive shortcomings in the first half and limit the Tar Heels offensively making a rally very difficult.
The bottom line is UNC can ill afford to start the game a step behind the opposing team if there are serious plans to contend for the Coastal Division title.
Elijah Hood finally gets a huge workload
Because Hood missed that final two plays against South Carolina in the red zone his usage in the game is now being micromanaged by UNC fans across the board. Every time he isn't in the game for a key play, the weeping and gnashing of teeth begin in earnest. In some ways it has become the football version of Roy Williams' timeouts. Yes, some of the criticism of how Hood is used or not used is certainly well deserved but that doesn't mean he will see every snap UNC takes in a game.
All that being said, Hood did man's work on Saturday. He rushed for 102 yards and 2 touchdowns on 21 carries, the later of which is a career high. He is the first UNC running back to top 20 carries in a game since A.J. Blue did it in 2013 versus East Carolina. Prior to that it was Gio Bernard doing it on multiple occasions in 2012.
Late in the third quarter, UNC embarked on a 93 yards that took 13 plays and 5:58 off the lock ending with Hood's three yard touchdown run to put UNC ahead 23-13. On that drive, Hood had five carries for 31 yards. The combination of Williams and Hood has proven very effective with UNC seemingly able to change types of runners on the fly with both players on the field. Hood is the bruiser while Williams uses his dual threat abilities to move the ball in the air but also on the ground when the defense permits it.
As much as UNC can use Hood and Williams together so much the better. With UNC hitting a critical stage of the season, it is reasonable to assume Hood will have more days of heavy usage.
For a third straight conference game UNC has dealt with seemingly bad officiating. In Atlanta it was a weird ball spot and measurement that gave the Yellow Jackets a first down at a key moment. Last week it was calling a fair catch by Ryan Switzer than never actually happened. This week it was many things. The game was slowed multiple times by play reviews and a total of 22 penalties between the two teams. UNC had 12 of those for 127 yards. Several big plays were negated by penalties with the biggest being Mack Hollins being called for offensive pass interference on a play that would have given UNC the ball at the one near the end of the first half.
The issue here is not so much the damage done to UNC's chances to win a game but the overall sense that ACC officiating is so awful the games aren't being contested fairly. It is one thing to blow a call, it is another to miss on calls that are painfully obvious in real time and even more so on replays. The seeming lack of competence has fans highly frustrated even when it doesn't impact the outcome of the game.
What it really boils down to is one simple question: Is accountability really too much to ask?