Coming off of their best game of the season in a last-second win over Florida State, the North Carolina Tar Heels seemed totally lost playing in a hurricane against Virginia Tech. The Heels were outplayed in nearly every phase of the game en route to a 34-3 blowout in which they never really looked like they had a chance. The offense was never able to get in rhythm and the defense was hence put in a hopeless situation.
Well, that Heisman chatter sure died down fast. After four straight weeks of excellence, Mitch Trubisky had by far his worst game of the season. While the conditions he was playing in were definitely a major factor, they can’t be wholly blamed for 13/33 for 58 yards and 2 picks. While the first interception looked a little like a miscommunication (more on that later), the throw on the second was just horrendous. Trubisky was behind his receivers for most of the day, and while several more of his passes deserved to be caught than actually were, he never completed a pass longer than 12 yards, and even that pass only traveled about 5 yards in the air. I’ve seen games at both the collegiate and NFL level played in conditions about equal to yesterday, and while it definitely hampered quarterback play, it wasn’t to this level.
Trubisky did have a couple of positive runs, at least one that was designed and one off a quick decision to scramble. Overall, though, he, just like the rest of the offense, just seemed off. In the end, your quarterback can’t turn the ball over three times to put the opposing offense less than 30 yards away from the end zone and expect to win in almost any conditions, let alone yesterday’s.
Backs and Receivers: 2/10
Let’s start with the positive: T.J Logan had as good a game as could be expected of him, and is the only reason this grade is not lower. He ran the ball pretty effectively, was UNC’s leading receiver, and was all in all the only player on UNC’s offense who looked like he had any idea what he was supposed to do. Logan, however, is kind of a microcosm of Larry Fedora’s offensive philosophy: He’s a very boom-or-bust player; his runs tend either to be stuffed at the line or go for 8+ yards. This makes him a great change-of-pace back, but the coaching staff can’t expect to use him like they do Elijah Hood, who is the consistent chain-mover of the two. That said, he did everything he could to put his team in position to compete, and this grade does not fall on him at all.
This offense misses Elijah Hood, badly. Hood missed the game with an undisclosed injury, likely related to the hit he sustained against Florida State last week. The Tar Heels just don’t have anybody who can replace his combination of power, vision, and football intelligence, the last of which is crucial to UNC’s pass protection. Khris Francis was a good changeup running back, with 3 carries for 5, 8, and 13 yards, but three carries inexplicably went to freshman Jordon Brown, who was able to do absolutely nothing with them. Logan was not used in pass protection much, likely in an effort to conserve him, but Francis and Brown also struggled mightily in pass protection. Logan was also held out of returning kickoffs, removing one of the more dynamic aspects of this year’s team on a day where special teams were vital (more on that later as well).
The receivers were just awful. The group that had been one of the country’s best the previous two weeks turned in a totally forgettable performance filled with drops, miscommunications, low-effort routes, and bad screen blocking, all of which have been rare sights for this WR corps in 2016. Carl Tucker might have been the best of the bunch, and he didn’t even catch a pass. He got open in the end zone once 20+ yards downfield and appeared to be illegally restrained on a well-thrown ball from Trubisky, though there was no call. Every one of UNC’s quartet of primary receivers dropped at least one pass, for a total of no fewer than 8 by my count: Switzer, Proehl, Howard, and Hollins. Yes, the ball was slippery and hard to catch, but the other team is playing in the same conditions, and VT’s receivers struggled to catch the ball much less than UNC’s did. The receivers, especially Switzer and Proehl, were trying to catch with their arms instead of their hands, which both shortened their catch radius and decreased their chances of catching balls thrown with any kind of velocity.
Ryan Switzer, after being one of the top receivers in the ACC for two weeks, turned in a complete clunker. He caught only two passes, both of them screens, and was unable to do anything with either of them, taking them for a total of two yards. He appeared to have no confidence after he was stopped for no gain on the first one early in the game, failing repeatedly to get open in the middle of the field, and either missing the ball or being misfired to on the occasion that he succeeded. His chemistry with his quarterback has been lauded this year, but yesterday, they never seemed to be on the same page.
The same can be said about most of the other receivers. On a day where secondaries were forced to play aggressively, the receivers should have been able to feast in an offense that is built on playing fast. Instead, they were just outplayed. Trubisky’s first interception was to Hollins, where it appeared that Trubisky expected Hollins to come back for the ball, but Hollins did not come back so much as stop, from my memory, and was out-fought for the ball by the Virginia Tech DB, a rarity for the usually tough-as-nails Hollins. It was just that kind of uncharacteristic day for the Heels receivers.
Offensive Line: 4/10
As much as the running back corps missed Elijah Hood, the offensive line might have missed him more in pass protection. While they usually held up okay against 4-5 man pass rushes, though there were hiccups, they were hopeless against blitzes. With Hood and starting LG Caleb Peterson out, the line was not nearly as strong as they were a week ago.
The offensive line rarely got any push in the run game, which was crucial coming into a game played in the rain. There were holes occasionally, but the backs usually had to create their own yardage starting at 0 yards gained instead of ~2-3 like you want from your offensive line. We saw hints of the offensive line not being able to really produce for running backs not named Hood last week, but it was on full display yesterday, as only a few runs between the tackles netted positive yardage. The offensive line also did a poor job of blocking for Trubisky as a runner on the few times he was called on to run the ball. On the bright side, I guess Lucas Crowley wasn’t snapping the ball low yesterday, on a day where that was a real concern.
Although the line did not play well, however, they were not dominated, either, and I can’t put much of the blame for the game on them playing a very good VT front. They did not really miss a beat with one of their starters out, turning in the kind of game we’ve seen most of the season, which has been shockingly sub-par for a veteran group. Though they missed their favorite running back, they did enough for the offense to compete. The other groups just couldn’t take advantage.
These grades are probably inflated due to both the hurricane and their juxtaposition with yesterday’s offense, but so be it.
Defensive Line: 7.5/10
Unsurprisingly, thanks in no small part to Hurricane Mitchell, the defense had its best game of the year. This started with the defensive line, which managed to limit big runs against an extremely run-heavy offense and a really good dual-threat quarterback in Jerod Evans. Especially early in the game, the line played very well on third down, with numerous stuffed runs on 3rd & short whether they were by the tailbacks or the quarterback. Malik Carney, starting in place of Tyler Powell, had a strong start to the game, especially in the run game. The line did wear down over the course of the game, which can’t be totally blamed on them as the offense gave them no time to recover after nearly any drive.
Containing Jerod Evans was the number one priority for the Heels on defense, and by holding strong at the point of attack and riding it to the outside when necessary, the Heels’ front four was able to do so very effectively outside of one or two drives. Naz Jones had another stellar day in the middle, with 9 tackles, a sack, a batted pass, a fumble he both forced and recovered on an early snap, and generally setting the mesh point consistently on the line.
As it has all season, the pass rush continued to struggle, but it didn’t have to do much, as Evans only dropped back to pass 17 times. He was pressured on a few dropbacks and sacked twice, even so.
Incidentally, after a string of strong games, Mikey Bart was nearly invisible against the Hokies, in both the running and passing games. He was alone, however, as the rest of the line put in a very respectable performance.
The linebackers have been UNC’s weak point on defense for the entire season, but they had a good game yesterday as well. Both in run support and pass coverage, they were able to do their jobs effectively when they had space to work with. Their worst play was Evans’ first touchdown pass, which came on a run-pass option where they were unsure who was supposed to cover the run and who was supposed to cover the pass, and gave up an easy touchdown, but other than that, they were usually disciplined and effective. Virginia Tech’s slot receivers were usually shut down by linebackers getting their hands on the receiver at the line of scrimmage, and a linebacker, usually either Andre Smith (15 tackles) or Cole Holcomb (10 tackles), was always around the ball on a run play.
There was one drive that Jerod Evans absolutely took over with his legs, where the linebackers lost contain on two straight plays: one a scramble out of a pass play and one a designed run. Luckily, this drive ended in Naz Jones’ forced fumble and recovery, so the linebackers were not punished, but it should still be noted, as other than that drive, they did an excellent job not allowing Evans to break free. Had that performance been through the whole game, the outcome may not have changed, but it would have given a lot of hope in the linebackers moving forward.
Special mention goes to Cole Holcomb. The former walk-on has had two great games in a row now, especially in the run game. While Andre Smith was expected to lead this linebacking group, and he has, Holcomb has been a very pleasant surprise. He had a nice PD to go along with his 6 solo, 4 assisted tackles.
Defensive Backs: 7/10
MJ Stewart and Des Lawrence turned in the kind of coverage game one expects from them. Lawrence broke up multiple passes and Stewart locked down his man nearly all game, adding a PBU early. Ultimately, however, the secondary did not have much to do in the passing game, as VT only threw 17 passes. The starters held up well in run support as well, as did safety Dominique Green. The players behind them, however, struggled.
Freshman Patrice Rene has been picked on all season, and while that’s to be expected of any freshman, he’s been a definite weak point in UNC’s secondary. He was caught behind on both of VT’s biggest pass plays of the game, the 22-yard touchdown to Sam Rogers and the 28-yard catch at UNC’s 2 yard line by Bucky Hodges. He needs safety help when he’s put on opposing receivers; I’ve seen him one-on-one too often, and it’s a matchup that we can’t really expect him to win right now. He’s shown good traits and I think he’ll be a great Tar Heel DB, don’t get me wrong. He’s just not ready yet, and the coaching staff is treating him like he is.
After a bad PI early in the game, Des Lawrence made sure the offense would remember who he was for the rest of the game. He was active in blowing up several VT screens, broke up 2 passes (out of 17, that’s about 11% of VT’s passes), and locked down his man for the rest of the game. MJ Stewart had a much quieter, but no less excellent game, with 5 tackles and a pass defensed. VT’s #1 receiver, Isaiah Ford, had caught a pass in 30 straight games, and was held without a reception yesterday largely due to the starting duo’s coverage.
Safety Dominiquie Green held position well and was often there to finish a tackle that one of the front seven had started. Though his job was not complicated, he did it well with 8 tackles, 7 of them assisted. That he only had one solo tackle is a testament to the defense overall keeping the ball in front of them.
Special Teams: 6/10
Nick Weiler had the Heels’ only points of the day with a short field goal, and hence didn’t have much to do other than convert that kick (he did) and kick two solid kickoffs in the rain (he pretty much did). Return coverage was as solid as it has been all season, continuing their streak of not allowing big returns this year. The boneheaded penalties from last week were gone, with only a couple of routine blocks in the back this week. None of it was noteworthy, but it was acceptable. Due to the weather, special teams were important, but because of how good Virginia Tech’s starting field position usually was and how ineffectively the UNC offense moved the ball, most special teams units did not have much to do.
Punter Tom Sheldon was the exception, with by far his most active game as a Tar Heel. He punted 6 times for a net average of close to 46 yards, which would be outstanding in any weather, let alone the conditions he was kicking in. But with so few special teams plays in a game, one play can sink a performance, and so the case was with Sheldon. He botched a snap and was not able to get a punt off deep in UNC territory, handing Tech the ball at the 1-yard line. In this game, field position was tantamount, and a freebie like that just is not acceptable. He also missed a few chances to pin Tech inside their own 10 when he was kicking from around midfield, and simply gave the Hokies touchbacks. Sheldon’s new to the sport, but these are the parts of the game he needs to know for the future.
By just about any measure you can think of to measure a coach’s performance, Larry Fedora was outcoached on Saturday. His team, especially his trademark offense was unprepared to play yesterday, either in a hurricane or maybe even in dry weather. UNC had eight penalties to VT’s three. Tech gameplanned for the rain, running the ball 66 times and passing only 19. UNC tried to stick with their usual game after it had been long since proven ineffective, finishing with 35 pass plays and 29 rushes.
Fedora has long infuriated Tar Heel fans with his refusal to run the ball, and this was especially true yesterday, especially when TJ Logan was clearly the only productive player on offense. Fedora has frequently used the wide receiver screen as a supplement to the run game, and it has usually worked for him this season, but yesterday, just about nothing he did worked, and he did not really adjust the gameplan accordingly. There was no reason that Trubisky should have thrown the ball 30 times by the end of the third quarter when Logan was doing as well as he was. On one drive in particular, Logan marched the Heels down the field before the coaching staff called three straight passes, all of which fell incomplete, to turn the ball over on downs.
We have to remember that the other team is playing in the same conditions as ours is. VT played far from a mistake-free game: They fumbled the ball six times in the first half, even if only two were taken away. These are the kinds of things a coach should be looking out for and trying to take advantage of. Nothing came of it.
The ultimate reason, I think, for UNC’s coaching failures this season is a fundamental distrust of the offensive line, especially in the run game. They haven’t played well this season, sure, but a coach who doesn’t trust his team, especially a unit as vital as the offensive line, is not going to be able to run his team properly. For a coach who makes his living based primarily on his offense, the offensive line should be his first priority after his quarterback. The line is talented, there’s no doubt about that. I understand that their chemistry was disrupted with John Ferranto’s injury and Landon Turner’s departure. But Fedora can’t keep trying to minimize them, especially in matchups where running the ball north-south is essential. As soon as he made the decision to pass more than the Heels ran, he lost this game for the Tar Heels.