Mitch Trubisky has been the hot topic of the Heels’ season thus far. On Saturday, however, he took a firm backseat to the performance of UNC’s running backs Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan, who powered the Heels to a closer-than-the-final-score victory over the always-scary Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. This is now Fedora’s third straight victory over Georgia Tech, a program that holds a 28-21-3 edge in the historical head-to-head matchup over UNC.
This rating is really just because of the high level of play that we’ve come to expect from Mitch Trubisky, but something looked undeniably off about him on Saturday. Many of his shorter throws didn’t have the juice behind them that they normally do, and he was off target on several deep throws. His final stat line is fine: 20-32 for 329 yards (62.5%, 10.3 YPA), 1 TD, no picks. Throw in six rushes for 44 yards and a touchdown, and by regular standards, Trubisky had a very good game. The thing is, the standard that Trubisky has set with his play is way higher than regular, and we have to judge him as such. In most of Carolina’s victories this season, Trubisky has been the unquestioned player of the game. On Saturday, he didn’t rise above the rest like he has in the past. He didn’t play badly by any means, but outside of a few jaw-dropping moments, he wasn’t the Trubisky that Carolina fans have become accustomed to seeing.
Trubisky spread the ball around very effectively, hitting nine different receivers for his 20 completions. One stat of note was that he and tight end Brandon Fritts, having played together in high school, connected for the first time this season. Fritts had been held out of competition with an undisclosed injury, but we could be seeing those two connect a lot more down the stretch.
Backs and Receivers: 9/10
This is the Elijah Hood we’ve been waiting for. After a decent, but definitely down year for the bruiser, Hood had his best game since at least the season opener with 12 rushes for 168 yards and three touchdowns. He earned these yards in a variety of ways: running between the tackles as well as outside, running through defenders as well as turning on the jets in the open field. His three touchdowns came on two goal-line dives and a 36-yard run where he beat the defense on 4th and 1. On Saturday, Hood reminded viewers why he was considered UNC’s best offensive player before the season started.
Oh, and the receivers weren’t too bad, either. There were no egregious drops or mistakes, which has also become the norm for this group of receivers. Bug Howard, still wearing his injured teammate’s #13, was the pick of the bunch, snagging six passes for 120 yards, including a 68-yard touchdown. Ryan Switzer was, curiously, not used in the screen game much if at all, and had four catches, his second-lowest total of the season, for 50 yards. Austin Proehl caught a couple of screens and also finished with four catches, his going for 54 yards.
T.J. Logan had a fairly mediocre day, with 10 rushes for only 36 yards, 20 of those coming on a nice touchdown run. He did give the offense a boost with a 46-yard reception, his only one of the game. In an offense that was ticking so well, though, it’s a minor complaint.
Offensive Line: 8/10
This was the offensive line that Elijah Hood had been waiting for. They finally opened up holes at the line of scrimmage for him to hit and then work his magic, with which they had struggled all season. They consistently got to the second level on longer runs, whether they were by Hood, Logan, or Trubisky. Their run blocking was close to perfect, and there were finally signs of cohesion in the group after a very confused and injury-riddled season for the offensive line.
In pass protection, the group was very good as well, albeit against a pretty bad Georgia Tech defense. Trubisky was never sacked and only hit once. He was hurried on a few deep throws, but overall, the line held up for him to make the throws he needed to make.
If only this group could be more disciplined. On seemingly every third down in the first half, the offensive line was called for a false start, getting the offense off schedule and killing several drives. This is inexcusable in any situation, but in a home environment, it’s just baffling. The team did avoid holding calls for the most part; I don’t remember any being called. Pre-snap penalties, though, need to be ironed out, and quickly.
The defense earns a high grade despite allowing 518 yards because they only allowed two touchdowns. The defense epitomized bend-don’t-break defense against a team that has always given UNC fits, and for that, deserve praise.
Defensive Line: 6/10
A game against the triple option offense is pretty hard to evaluate, as players have so many different responsibilities and it’s hard enough for us fans to keep track of where the ball is, let alone what the defense is doing to diagnose it. Georgia Tech’s rushing stats were eye-poppingly high: 58 rushes for 328 yards, for a healthy 5.8 YPC clip. That’s slightly ahead of the team’s average yards per rush, but not overwhelmingly so. Moreover, the defensive line stepped up in critical situations, coming up with stuffs, tackles for loss, and blown plays when the team most needed them. Georgia Tech was 3-6 scoring in the red zone, and only one of those scores was a touchdown.
The defensive line also stepped up as far as turnovers were concerned, forcing and recovering two fumbles which ended up being the only two turnovers of the game, the first of which all but sealed the result. In a season where UNC still has yet to intercept a pass, forcing and recovering fumbles has become key.
Andre Smith was undoubtedly the game’s MVP, flying all over the field and consistently making good reads on the triple option offense. His speed and awareness, especially in the second half, were key in limiting the Georgia Tech offense to only three points after the halftime break. The linebackers were tasked basically with covering the outside of the triple option, namely the quarterback and outside running back, or B-back. Yellow Jacket quarterback Justin Thomas does not seem to have a ton of confidence pitching it to the B-back, which did simplify the linebackers’ job a little bit, but he is very good at selling fakes, and after a few drives of getting gashed by the quarterback’s legs after biting on fakes, the linebackers tightened up and were able to contain him. Remember, this is the quarterback who had 195 yards rushing on 17 carries a week ago, albeit against Duke, possibly the worst team in the ACC. UNC’s much-maligned run defense held him to 82 on 15 carries.
Another part of the reason that the linebackers were better Saturday than most days is that they were not tasked with pass coverage as they often are. Thomas only threw the ball 10 times, and most if not all of those were shots downfield, as is typical for the Georgia Tech offense. Without having to worry about the underneath routes that have gashed the Heels time and again this season, the linebackers were able to focus on trying to stop the offense’s run game, and again, bent but for the most part didn’t break.
Defensive Backs: 6/10
The defensive backs were good in run support, which was their main objective for the day. However, one of Georgia Tech’s two touchdowns falls completely on the secondary: an 86-yard pass play on a bootleg that sucked the entire defense forward. This was the first time this season that I can recall M.J. Stewart being burned deep, and as he recovered, he went for the strip instead of the tackle, missed, and the GT receiver was home free. This was a shockingly bad play from a player who has been rock solid this season. He played well the rest of the game, with a 15-yard sack (officially a TFL, as Thomas was a runner), a near-pick, and a 3rd-down stop of Thomas where he simply shoved the quarterback to the ground, but his mistake cannot be ignored.
The rest of the secondary was mostly invisible due to the run-heavy offense, though Dominiquie Green did get burned for a long pass. This ended up not mattering due to a blocked field goal, but it was a notably bad play by the safety.
Special Teams: 9.5/10
Special Teams play was solid all around. Tom Sheldon had one short punt to make and placed it behind the GT 20, the kickoff coverage never allowed a returner past the 25 yard line on the rare occasion that Nick Weiler didn’t kick a touchback, and Weiler was perfect on the day, converting field goals from 37 and 51 yards. Additionally, the field goal coverage unit partially blocked a Georgia Tech field goal attempt. Special mention goes to Anthony Ratliff-Williams, who had a very nice kickoff return called back for a block in the back near the end of the run. It won’t show up in the stat sheet, but kickoff duty looks to be in good hands after T.J. Logan leaves. The only thing special teams didn’t do Saturday is score a touchdown.
Credit to Larry Fedora for his team not coming out of the bye week flat; the Heels looked motivated and ready to play. For the third straight week, Fedora found a balance between running and passing the ball, and it worked this week better than ever to the tune of 636 total yards on offense. There were some weird decisions, like the one not to run Elijah Hood at all in the second quarter, but when you have an offensive game like this one, where the team only punts once, it’s hard to fault the coaching for much of anything. He also pulled another play out of his seemingly endless bag of tricks, this time opening the game with a lateral to Proehl, who then threw it to Trubisky in the flat. The play gained 8 yards. I will say that the “T.J. Logan at wildcat” formation needs to die, though. It just doesn’t work.
It is fairly worrying that UNC allowed Georgia Tech to average over 10 yards per play in the first half before tightening up. The team had two weeks to prepare for this offense, and still allowed it to run wild in the first half. Something must have happened at halftime, though, for that average per play to drop to 7.6 yards, so if Fedora is to lose any credit for how the team came out in the first half, he surely has to earn most of it back for how he got them to come out in the second. Good work from Fedora, and a good win for the team.