Before the season opener, we took a look at 4 stats that led to great success for UNC last season. While there are plenty of data points, statistical categories, and analytical talking points, sometimes it’s better to keep things simple. By focusing on sacks/TFL, turnover margin, short yardage rushing situations, and penalties we looked at 4 easy to understand categories that often correlate to successful seasons. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but they can point to trends or possible weak spots.
For example, a lack of sacks or tackles for loss indicate a defensive line may not be getting pressure on the quarterback or stopping running backs behind the line of scrimmage. Teams that struggle in this category often have holes in their defense, as once the ball gets past the line of scrimmage, either by air or ground, other areas of the defense have to step up and provide relief. It often all starts in the trenches.
The same can be said when looking at the offensive line. In the pre-season I touched on the ability to find success when rushing in short yardage situations. Football Outsiders uses a metric called the Power Success Metric. This is the percentage of runs on third or fourth down, with two yards or less to go, that resulted in a first down or a touchdown, Last season, UNC was 104th in this category. Not ideal, and it shows a weakness in being able to just overpower your opponent, as opposed to using schemes to mask deficiencies on the offensive line.
Again, there are no hard and fast rules, but they can be useful guides. So, without further adieu, let us revisit thsee 4 categories.
Sacks/Tackles for Loss
Last season, UNC ranked 81st in sacks with a whopping 23 on the season. They were even worse in tackles for loss (TFLs), with only 62 on the year. Or, only 39 that were not a sack (sacks count as a TFL). Those are pretty dismal numbers. With a tougher schedule, that was going to have to change to stay competitive.
Sure enough, UNC has shown some improvement, even with their struggles against the run. They currently have 18 sacks and 44 tackles for loss with four games to play. That’s an average of 2.25 sacks per game and 5.5 TFLs per game, both of which are increases over last year. They also arguably have the easiest portion of their schedule over the next four weeks. With no disrespect meant to Duke, GT, N.C. State, or the Citadel, this season they don’t bring the same level of concern as Pitt, VT, Miami, UGA, and FSU did.
Additionally, all three remaining ACC foes are in the bottom half of the conference’s passing offense. Duke and State both are also in the bottom half in rushing offense, whereas GT is third in the conference with 5.08 yards per carry. Essentially, UNC will have a great opportunity to continue or increase their pass rushing stats, while also facing predominantly weaker rushing offenses than they did in the first half of the season. These are all positive indicators that an increase in pass rush production is on the horizon.
Last season, deficiencies were often masked with key forced turnovers. UNC ended the year with a +12 turnover ratio in all their victories. This means the defense forced 12 more turnovers than the offense committed. In their three losses, UNC’s turnover margin was -5. It’s not secret that positive margins are good for football teams.
This season, it has been a very different story. UNC has a -3 turnover margin, with 0 interceptions. A large part of this is attributed to opposing QBs simply are not testing UNC’s DBs. Many of the routes that have proven to be a challenge the passing defense are wheel routes and short crossing routes. This is proven by the average of 6.6 yards per passing attempt against UNC. It’s difficult to create interceptions when teams don’t throw the ball down the field.
Of course, teams haven't had to throw as much because of the leaky rushing defense. Now that the defense seems to finally making strides, UNC fans can expect to see the opposition in more passing situations that require the DBs to be tested. This was a welcome sight against both Miami and UVA, once the running games were stifled. While the defense couldn’t grab an INT, the secondary was all over the field, making plays, and getting their hands on the ball. If those situations can continue over the last third of the season, that turnover margin should creep back into the positive numbers.
Last season UNC displayed remarkable discipline, resulting in 5.7 penalties a game for an average of 46.7 yards per game. Those numbers were the best of the Larry Fedora era at UNC, and there was hope a similar season could ensue.
That has not happened. Instead, UNC is averaging 8.3 penalties for 65.8 yards a game. Both are the worst numbers for UNC during Fedora’s tenure. In at least one game cough UGA cough, there is a strong case to be made that penalties were one of two easily recognizable reasons that the Heels walked away with a loss. (Failure to commit to the run game is the other).
Three different times UNC has accumulated double digit penalties. Two times they have elcipsed 100 yards in penalties. Not surprisingly, the majority of the penalties have come from the offensive line. At the beginning of the season, a regression by the offensive line would have been almost unthinkable. However, a rash of injuries has completely changed the offensive line from game to game. As such, false starts have become so commonplace that I’m not convinced it isn’t an actual play in the UNC playbook.
Unfortunately, penalties are not wholly dependent on your opponent’s skill level. Otherwise, JMU would not have benefitted from 10 penalties to the tune of 110 yards. If these numbers do not decline over the next 4 games, then UNC runs the risk of allowing one of their remaining opponents to hang around long enough to pull the upset. Putting opponests away has been a problem with this team all year, and penalties are an easy way to give hope to inferior teams.
Short Yardage Rushing
As stated in the intro, the Power Success Rate is used by Football Outsiders to determine how successful a team is in short yardage situations. This is the percentage of runs on third or fourth down, with two yards or less to go, that resulted in a first down or a touchdown, Last season, UNC was 104th in this category.
This season? They are 127th, only converting these situations 47.7% of the time. This is alarming but not surprising. UNC has really struggled to commit to the run or consistently convert in short yardage situations. Yes, the past two weeks have shown signs of improvement in these departments, but that doesn’t erase the first six games. Those games were...erratic when running the ball was concerned.
The constant shuffle on the offensive line has not helped either. This blog touched on the new faces of the offsensive line earlier this week. Lack of experience and talent, compared to last year’s squad, has contributed to some of these problems. Those issues have manifested in stalled drives, being stuffed at the goal line, and settling for field goals to let teams stay within 1 or two possessions
The good news is Duke’s rushing defense is currently 9th in the ACC, while GT’s is 8th. Middle of the pack ACC teams could provide some opportunities to improve short yardage success. The bad news is Miami is 10th, FSU is 11th, and UVA is 12th. These are some of the teams that have helped contribute to the 127th ranking.
Despite some flaws compared to last year’s team, UNC is still 6-2. A second consecutive Coastal championship is still well within reach, and back to back 10 win seasons is attainable.
Surprisingly, the regressions discussed are on the offensive side of the ball. Perhaps that means these are completely arbitrary stats that don’t mean anything. (Very possible!) Or, maybe that just reinforces the idea that Mitch Trubisky may be one of the best in country, and he is able to keep UNC competitive with his talents.
Regardless, the home stretch of the season is easier than the first eight games. Some improvements are still needed and some of the regressions are disappointing, but they aren’t irreversible. Plus, in regards to State and Duke, when two rivals step on a field, all stats go out the window. Allegedly. Maybe. In some cases, like against State’s staunch defensive front, I hope so.
In the meantime, I’ll keep hoping the Hokies stumble in November.