The tremendous offense. The much improved defense. More week-to-week consistency against weaker teams. All of these are reasons as to why North Carolina improved so much from 2014 to 2015, becoming one of the best and most promising football programs in the whole ACC. One other important aspect that needs to be replicated for another successful season? Winning the turnover battle.
In 2014, UNC struggled mightily with limiting turnovers on the offensive end despite the defense being rather successful in ball-hawking (23 total interceptions and fumbles recovered). In fact, the Heels’ turnover margin was exactly zero. Marquise Williams threw nine picks that year, in addition to four fumbles lost. For all of his game-busting speed and athleticism, Williams still frustrated the team with his inability to hold onto the ball.
Worse, as Carolina ultimately went 6-7 that year, they only won the turnover battle in five games. UNC had just one game all year with zero turnovers on the offensive end. Too often, the Heels had to rely on the defense to force turnovers, something they surprisingly did well even with the massive yardage totals they consistently gave up. Simply, in 2014, for all the talent, the turnovers really limited the team from creating any momentum during the season.
Last year, North Carolina actually won the turnover battle with a margin of plus seven turnovers. The defense did much of the same as the previous year, actually contributing three more forced turnovers on the season. The difference? Both interceptions and fumbles lost were cut down.
Nonetheless, turnovers reared their ugly head during the opening game against South Carolina. Williams threw 10 interceptions on the season, one more than the previous, but three came against the Gamecocks. Without a doubt, the Heels lost that game due to red-zone turnovers by Williams, something he mostly corrected for the rest of the season.
Oddly, the team only won the turnover battle in six games last year, but the Heels showed resistance and fortitude in those games. In match ups against NC State and Virginia Tech (three turnovers in both games), UNC nearly lost because of their looseness with the ball. Big leads and, ultimately, superior talent and playmaking are what made them able to see those games out. Can this upcoming team suffer a three turnover game and still come away with a win?
If the defense can continue to force turnovers at a similar rate, the transition from Williams to Mitch Trubisky will be the main factor regarding turnovers. Interestingly, although Williams was prone to turnovers due to his desire to make big plays with his arm and his feet, Trubisky has struggled with keeping control of the ball as well. As a backup to Williams in 2014, Trubisky threw four interceptions on just 78 pass attempts.
Thankfully, last season in the same role, Trubisky was much more effective and efficient when given the opportunity to lead the offense. He didn’t throw a single interception and actually increased his touchdown total despite fewer attempts. He had just seven incompletions on the season and seemed to be much more comfortable and decisive when throwing the ball.
It’s crucial that Trubisky continues to limit his turnovers, as he takes control of the starting quarterback position. He’ll be given the reigns of the offense like he never has been before, and that adjustment won’t be seamless. He has a formidable running game to support him, as well as several veteran receivers ready to catch anything that comes their way. The tools are all around him for him to be a steady, smart quarterback.
However, the pressure to succeed and perform right away is large. The team is ready for another fruitful year and is getting desperate to earn more national spotlight for their success. Will it be too much for Trubisky? Will he become erratic and inconsistent? For UNC to have another great year on the football field, Trubisky can’t let that get to him. Another year where the Heels can steadily improve on the turnover game is a big step into churning out consistent 9, 10 or even 11-game winning seasons.