It’s game day. The Heels are in Champaign, Illinois for tonight’s game against the Illini. Carolina is ready to move on from last week’s disappointment, and make amends against their second non-conference Power 5 opponent in as many weeks. In order to do that, there are three areas to watch.
Before the season started, we looked at four key stats that could determine success this season; penalties, turnover margin, short yard rushing, and sacks/tackles for loss (TFL). Last week, the penalties and lack of short yard rushes (three passes from the five yard line!?) were vital in handing Georgia a victory.
Heading into Saturday’s contest, the other two stats - sacks/TFL and turnovers - will require increased scrutiny. The third stat to watch, time of possession, may unfortunately become a regular factor in games against tougher competition.
Last year the Tar Heels were abysmal in pressuring the quarterback and stopping running backs behind the line of scrimmage. Last week they weren’t much better as they registered only two TFLs that were not a sack, and zero QB hurries. Regardless, UNC displayed a glimmer of hope. They registered four sacks, despite playing with a depleted front four.
The most important takeaway was that the four sacks came from three different positions. Two came from the defensive line: Mikey Bart had one, and Malik Carney and Nazair Jones combined for one. The other two were registered to linebacker Cole Holcomb, and defensive back Des Lawrence.
This hopefully points to a topic that was often talked about during the off-season - defensive variety and complexity. Last season linebackers combined for 2.5 sacks the entire season. Unsurprisingly, defensive backs accounted for even fewer with one lonely sack. After recording 23 sacks last year, UNC is now on pace to record 48 sacks this season.
While I do not realistically believe that pace will continue, I do think we will see more pass rushing success from different areas of the field. As the defense continues to learn Chizik’s system, that variety should continue. That will allow UNC the freedom to mix up alignments and confuse the quarterback before the snap.
Like I said, it was only a glimmer of hope. However, against a (likely) more balanced Illinois offense compared to Georgia’s, the Tar Heel defense may have a few more chances to capitalize in passing situations. If they can’t create a sack, then maybe a little extra pressure, aided with some creative scheming, can force some bad decisions.
Lovie Smith’s teams are notorious for their intense effort on defense, aggressive “Tampa 2” schemes to contain explosive passing schemes, and the ability to force turnovers. As a Green Bay Packers fan, I am all too familiar with Smith’s mid-2000’s defenses that terrorized the NFC North. As such, it may be even more important this week to display extra discipline when trying to move the chains.
I fully acknowledge the competition that Murray State provides is not on the same level as UNC’s. However, Illinois still forced three turnovers. Two of those were interceptions by a secondary that boasts exactly one returning player from last year’s team. Mitch Trubisky may have struggled last week, but he at least didn’t give UGA any free possessions. The same result this week will help UNC get back on track.
On the flip side, UNC would be well served to earn a few free possessions. Much of their success last year was buoyed by timely forced turnovers. Any time the UNC offense can find some extra snaps and get into their rhythm, opponents often struggle to keep up. Georgia was allowed too much freedom to dictate the pace and style of play last week. The UNC defense has to force the efficient, low risk Illinois offense into a few uncharacteristic mistakes. (Starting Illinois QB Wes Lunt only had six interceptions last year, despite averaging 40 attempts a game).
If Illinois follows a similar game plan as Georgia (and they should), the UNC defense will have to find a way to get off the field. Fortunately for UNC, the Illini did lose nine fumbles last year, so opportunities will be there. If the defense does not get extended amounts of rest, this will turn into another close, hard-fought game. The kind of game that UNC has had trouble winning in recent years.
Time of Possession
Twenty-one minutes and fifty-seven seconds. That is how long the UNC offense held onto the ball last week. That seems....less than optimal until you realize that last year, their offense only possessed the ball for an average of 25:16. The year before that, when defense was optional, the average time of possession was 25:28. So, clearly ball control is not a huge concern in Larry Fedora’s system.
Look, any defense that has to defend Nick Chubb for over 30 carries and 38 minutes is going to get gashed, but the bottom line is this: If the UNC defense cannot get off the field in a timely manner, this is going to be a disappointing season. Many of UNC’s opponents have strong or dominant running games, especially early in the season.
Running teams control the clock. If they control the clock, UNC’s offense sits on the sidelines. If UNC’s offense is stuck on the sideline, they don't have a chance to get in a groove that is so important for Fedora’s teams. If they don’t find a groove, they go back to the sideline, and Tom Sheldon comes on to kick the ball to the other team.. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
The only way to combat this apparently very confusing problem, other than forcing turnovers, would be for UNC to actually extend some of their own drives. While this idea likely sends shivers down the back of every offensive coach on UNC’s staff, they have not done the defense many favors the last few seasons. This is doubly true against tougher competition. I like explosive plays. I love touchdowns. I also love winning. Sometimes, in order to win, a little flexibility in one’s system is necessary.
Lovie Smith’s pro teams typically knew how to run the ball. They also knew how to defend and force turnovers. Illinois fans are anxiously hoping those trends become staples of his college philosophy. Yet, one shellacking of Murray State doesn’t give anyone a great idea of what to expect.
However, last week’s game against UGA gave Tar Heel fans plenty of reasons to be concerned. If UNC’s offense can’t find a way to extend a few of their own drives tonight (I’ll let you figure out how this can be achieved), then UNC’s defense will have to find a few turnovers and/or continue to build on their minor pass rush success.
If none of those things happen, it’s going to be another long trip back home for every player, coach, and fan that made the trip this weekend.