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UNC Football Positional Group Grades: win vs. Miami

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Where the offensive line failed, the defense picked them up

NCAA Football: North Carolina vs Georgia Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

A week after laying an egg in the rain to Virginia Tech, Carolina traveled to Miami with a point to prove against the #16 Hurricanes. The Heels controlled the game in the first half, racing out to a 20-3 lead at the half before using a strong defensive performance to hold on 20-13.

Offense: 5

Offensive Line: 2

In the running game, the offensive line failed to acquit itself well on Saturday. The Heels averaged only 3.8 yards per carry on the ground all day, mostly due to the offensive line losing the battle at the line of scrimmage on almost every play. The Hurricanes were able to penetrate into the the backfield regularly, with 9 tackles behind the line of scrimmage for the game. Elijah Hood struggled to get himself going on the ground in his first game back from injury with only 31 yards on 13 carries.

Outside of Hood, the biggest sign of the offensive line’s struggles was Mitch Trubisky’s 13 carries. Trubisky was regularly flushed from the pocket on Saturday and had to scramble away from sacks throughout the game. Another example of the Heels’ poor offensive line play was their lone goal line sequence of the second half. After having first and goal at the 2, the Heels then ran the ball on three of the next four plays but could not get the two yards they needed to score and ice the game. In the future, the line will need to generate a better push up front or they will come up short in do or die situations.

The line’s poor level of play impacted each aspect of the Carolina’s offensive performance on Saturday and was a critical reason for the Heels’ second half shutout. Trubisky was pressured all day, and although he was only hit twice and sacked once, the Heels had to alter their approach to the game. Carolina did not attempt many deep passes—how they blew out Miami last year—but instead had to rely on a bevy of swing passes, screens and quickly developing routes. This was the key reason why Trubisky had only 6.5 yards per attempt. The Heels were clearly outclassed by Miami’s line on Saturday. They were unable to match the physicality and speed of the Hurricane’s defensive tackles, and it changed everything that Carolina tried to do on offense.

The most obvious flaw in the offensive line Saturday was the mind-boggling seven false starts and one holding penalty on the line over the course of the afternoon. The line actively cost the Heels 45 yards in penalties alone. The penalties cost the team valuable field position in this game, and the line is lucky that the defense played as well as it did to preserve the win.

Backs and Receivers: 7

Despite the struggles of the offensive line, T.J. Logan continued his breakout season. Logan had 86 yards on 15 carries for a nice 5.6 yards per carry average. He was able to accelerate around and past Miami’s defenders throughout the game. Logan’s speed was a better weapon for Carolina compared to Hood’s more methodical running between the tackles. Hood might have had issues all day thanks to a shaky O-line, but he was still highly valuable as a receiver who caught all four of his targets for 28 yards and vital, drive-extending 1st downs.

This game will most likely be remembered as Bug Howard’s breakout performance. With Mack Hollins missing a significant portion of the game due to injury, Howard became the main option outside. Howard caught 10 passes for 156 yards, which understates his importance to the Heels on Saturday. When Carolina needed to move the ball, they went to Howard instead of Ryan Switzer or Mack Hollins.

Switzer had nine catches Saturday but those seemed to be force fed to him. Switzer only had 17 yards on his 9 catches—most of them were simple swing passes that effectively served as extensions of the Carolina running game. While he was still on the field, Hollins played quite well, serving as an able blocker in the run game and catching an underthrown 49 yard pass from Trubisky. The skilled position players for the Heels continued to be the strength of the team. Throughout the season, North Carolina has been repeatedly bailed out on offense by their backs and receivers, this was the case again on Saturday.

Quarterback: 6

Trubisky ran the offense against the Hurricanes and acted much more like a game manager on Saturday. He did not throw the ball downfield frequently, instead throwing accurate short passes or scrambled for yards on busted plays. Trubiksy kept the chains moving when the team needed him to—an invaluable asset for the team. He made quality decisions with the football all afternoon rather than take risks with the ball by chucking it downfield. His strong play led the Heels to victory despite the fact that his raw numbers were relatively unspectacular.

Defense: 8

Defensive Line: 8

Carolina’s defensive line played one of their best games of the season against Miami. The Hurricanes were limited to 3.9 yards per carry with star tailback Mark Walton limited to only 82 yards on 24 carries. The defensive line generated a great push up front for the entire game, allowing the Heels to stop runs for short gains. The defensive tackles commanded double teams for most of the afternoon, preventing the Hurricane’s offensive linemen from getting to the second level and allowing Carolina’s linebackers and safeties increased roles in stopping the run.

In the passing game, the Heels kept Miami’s quarterback, Brad Kaaya, off-balance all game long. Kaaya went 16-31 with 224 yards and no touchdowns. Kaaya missed throws all game long and rarely faced a clean pocket. Carolina’s pass rush also came up for the Heels when it mattered most. During a key Miami drive, Malik Carney strip sacked Kaaya and the Heels recovered to effectively end the game. The pass rush had been anemic so far this season, but against Miami they turned the game around. The Heels went into a hostile road environment and held the #16 team in the nation to only 13 points. A critical part of that defensive performance was the improved pass rush.

Linebackers: 8

The strong play by the defensive line allowed the linebackers to shine for one of the first times all season. The linebackers had fewer responsibilities, and were able to move laterally and up the field with freedom they had not seen to this point. Carolina did not send many five-man rushes against the Hurricanes, preferring to either commit more men on blitzes or to rush their standard four man defensive line. With simplified responsibilities the linebackers were able to focus on doing one thing well on each play. This helped them succeed in both pass coverage, and against the run.

Against the run, they had simplified gap assignments and were able to prevent the Hurricanes from breaking long runs with fundamentally strong tackles. In the pass game the Heels limited the Hurricanes by playing tight coverage to stymie the short, quick developing routes Miami tried to use to take the pressure off of Kaaya. The linebackers were instrumental in preventing the Hurricanes from being able to just run slant or crossing routes for the entire game. By standing tall, the linebackers helped the team put together their strongest defensive performance of the year.

Defensive Backs: 7

The secondary shone against the pass on Saturday. M.J. Stewart and Des Lawrence played their usual complete and excellent games at corner. Lawrence broke up a pass while Stewart had two break ups of his own. Carolina limited Kaaya to only 7.2 yards per attempt and a completion percentage just above 50%. This was due to Lawrence and Stewart’s quality performances, but the rest of the secondary stepped up as well. No Miami wide receiver had more than two catches for the ‘Canes while the unit only had six for the entire game.

Against the run, the defensive backs were even better. Their tackling was impeccable, the safeties, led by Donnie Miles, frequently charged into the box to make plays against the run. When they did, they tackled with strong fundamentals, engaging their full bodies and wrapping up Miami’s ball carriers.

The secondary has been the strong part of the Heels’ defense all season. However against Miami, fans saw what happens when the rest of the defense plays at a similarly high level. With strong performances all around, the secondary can sit back and essentially relax. The defense won the contest for Carolina this weekend, playing a complete contest in all facets of the game with the secondary providing a supporting role rather than the dominant one for a nice change.

Special Teams: 6

Tom Sheldon and Nick Weiler were the only parts of the special teams that saw any real action in Miami. Weiler continued his impressive season with a 52-yard field goal that squeaked over the crossbar and quality kickoffs for touchbacks. Weiler also pulled off the kicking part of an onside kick, even though it was called back by the officials after review. In the punting game, Sheldon was excellent again, booming kicks all the way down the field. In the return game, Carolina did not have much to do, and no one distinguished themselves for good or for ill.

Coaching: 7

The coaching staff deserves a lot of credit for Carolina’s best played, and most complete game of the season. The Heels played well on both sides of the ball against a tough opponent in a game where they were a touchdown underdog. The coaches called smart plays on offense, mitigating the poor performance of the offensive line by calling more read option plays for Trubisky and a bevy of swing passes and screens.

They specifically used their offensive play book to keep the ball away from the Hurricane’s defensive line, and it worked. Further, the coaches repeatedly made correct decisions over the course of the game. The Heels kicked field goals when appropriate and went for conversions when they should have. Most importantly was the surprise onside kick that Carolina attempted in the second quarter. The Heels were up by 10 at the time and the onside kick recovery would have put the Heels in position to blow out Miami in the first quarter to effectively end the game before 15 minutes elapsed. Despite the fact that the kick was called back, the decision maximized the Heels’ chances of winning the game and is the type of call that fans should appreciate coming from the coaching staff.

Carolina played its best game of the season on defense. After surrendering 34 points at home to Virginia Tech, the defense rebounded with a complete shutdown of the #16 team in the nation, and one of the best offenses that they’ll see all year. Most of all, the coaches deserve credit for picking the team up after their awful performance last week. Duds like the loss to Virginia Tech are the types of games that can wreck an entire season, players can quit on the team, coaches, and each other. With a game on the road next week against a quality opponent, many teams would have fallen apart. Instead, the Heels rallied and beat another top 20 team on the road.