The Heels picked up their first win of the season with a 48-23 thumping of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. The win was important for the Heels as they bounced back from a dispiriting opening week loss to Georgia. Carolina hosts James Madison in Chapel Hill next week for their home opener.
Positional Grades (1-10 scale, 10 is best)
Offensive Line: 5
Carolina's offense played much better against the Fighting Illini than against the Bulldogs a week earlier. However the play calling against Illinois displayed a marked shift from the game plan of a week earlier, seemingly shielding the offensive line from becoming over exposed. In the run game, the Heels utilized many of the same concepts they succeeded with last season. Elijah Hood received a steady diet of carries in between the tackles while T.J. Logan had his own steady workload as a change of pace back.
For both runners, there were significantly larger holes against Illinois than against Georgia, but this should be expected given the discrepancy between the quality of the opponents. The offensive line received a further boost from the resurgence of the read option on offense. A significant problem against Georgia, and one which still plagued the Heels against Illinois, was the fact that it was quite rare for the offensive line to seamlessly execute its assignments on any given play. Often, one member of the line would fail to secure their block in the run game or they would be beaten in pass protection.
The read option masks that difficulty by allowing Mitch Trubisky to read the play as it develops and select the best option available to him. If one member of the line blows their assignment, a read option play allows for the runner (quarterback or otherwise) to simply move away from the incoming defender and find an open hole instead. The read option was incredibly effective against Illinois and should remain a substantial part of the offense for the rest of season; however, this should not overshadow the fact that this covers up for a line which has so far been inconsistent in the run game.
Where the struggles of the offensive line were more apparent and glaring was in pass protection. Carolina took very few shots down the field in this game, and a significant reason for that was a lack of time in the pocket for Trubisky. Trubisky rarely had a clean pocket to throw from and the Heels shifted to a choice of pass plays which developed much faster than the downfield options that the Heels preferred in Atlanta. The Heels also asked the offensive line to do substantially less in pass protection than previously. Carolina only ran a few screens and only one screen pass that involved the offensive line, the touchdown pass to Logan on 3rd and 15 in the first half.
Otherwise the Heels called a few bubble screens for wide receivers and did not call a tunnel screen. Some of this could be a hesitancy to call screens after the safety last week against Georgia, but it could also be a method to simplify the job of the offensive line and keep their jobs relatively straight forward. If the shift in the play calling was designed to protect the offensive line, it was effective. Trubisky was only sacked twice and was not hit once.
Despite that success the line still struggled with penalties in this game. For such a veteran group, it is quite unacceptable that the line had four false starts in this contest. A false start occurred in the pre-snap run up to the safety, moving the Heels farther back towards the end zone. While the penalties were ultimately inconsequential in this game, the offensive line needs to play more professionally for the rest of the season because it is far from a certainty that these penalties will not materially effect a future game. Whether the coaching staff over emphasizes a lack of penalties in the next few weeks or the players recommit themselves to a higher standard of excellence, the penalties need to stop. Fortunately for the line, FCS foe James Madison awaits in Chapel Hill this coming week, which should give the line a relatively low pressure scenario within which they can hone their craft.
Running Backs and Receivers: 8
T.J. Logan and Elijah Hood each had very productive games. Logan continues to showcase previously unseen dynamism as a runner with a quality ability to break tackles that was missing from his game in previous years. Logan has moved from being a situational runner to a true alternative to Hood in the backfield. Meanwhile, Hood himself played a solid game and deserved to be rewarded with two scores. The contrast between the two runners comes almost entirely from their different running styles and how that interacts with the offensive line.
No player on the Heels misses Landon Turner more than Hood, who has struggled to create much between the tackles so far this season. On his first touchdown, Hood worked off the left tackle rather than move through the middle. On his 62-yard touchdown run he still had to break a tackle at the line of scrimmage before he was able to burst through into the end zone.
On other plays he is routinely running into a wall of defenders in the backfield (see this week's safety), or he is being forced outside where he is less effective. Logan naturally sees a higher level of success in the open field and as such, his output is more independent of the performance of the offensive line. With an improvement in the line's performance, Hood's play will also improve. Such improvements would only be a bonus for Logan, who is a really nice breakout player for the Heels so far this season.
The wide receivers did not have a ton to do in this game. The Heels ran the ball more than they threw it and were often in strong positions on offense due to the success of the runners. When the receivers were called upon, they were largely successful. Ryan Switzer was very active over the middle of the field out of the slot, working to secure multiple clutch first downs for the Heels. Bug Howard had a miniature resurgence in this game with a couple of nice catches for Carolina in challenging situations.
If anything the Heels could ask for a bit more from Mack Hollins. Hollins has been excellent so far this season as a downfield blocker and as a player on special teams. However, despite his touchdown reception in this game, the senior has not yet been able to fully put it together in the passing game yet. Hollins dropped a touchdown to end the first half and on an early third down, he ran a route as the hot receiver which was short of the sticks. These are the types of plays that a senior leader like Hollins needs to make for the Heels to take the next step as a team. In the past, he has shown in the past that he is fully capable of making these plays as well as expanding his role as a deep threat. Carolina merely needs him to return to form for the passing offense to fully grow into itself.
Mitch Trubisky played a very good game. He did nothing spectacular, but such a situation was never required. He kept the offense humming along smoothly, both in the passing and running game. As a passer, he was about as close to perfect as anyone will be against power-5 opposition that isn't Kansas, going 19-24 with two scores and 265 yards. He was composed in the pocket, and delivered balls with much more accuracy than he did the previous week against Georgia. His accuracy was not perfect, there were several balls that were overthrown, but his misses in this game were consistently overthrows rather than a mixture of over and underthrows seen in the Georgia game.
This is a positive sign and portrays the fact that he should be able to continue to improve as the season continues. Mechanically, he still has some work to do, when the pocket is under pressure he tends to fall victim to the same happy feet that Marquise Williams had. He also has a tendency to rush movement through his progressions when pressured. These are smaller issues when held up against the fact that his accuracy improved this week as well as his decision making with the football, but they are necessary steps for him to be able to succeed against opponents like Florida State down the road.
The last note on Trubisky as a passer is that this game did not ask a lot of him. The game plan was light on deep passes or particularly convoluted routes. For instance, he was never asked to throw a back shoulder pass to the sticks or an end zone fade. Rather, most routes in this game were simple screen, crossing routes or go routes which are all substantially easier to execute. Trubisky can only succeed at the plays the coaches call so these observations are not intended as demerits, but it is important to not overreact to one game where he succeeded at running a simpler scheme than in a previous contest against an inferior opponent.
Trubisky was excellent in the running game and with his broader decision making. Trubisky only had three of his 24 passes defensed and none were close to interceptions. Despite that quality accomplishment, Trubisky shown brighter in the running game. Each time he was presented with a read-option play, he picked the correct option and picked the Illinois defense apart. As a runner himself, he showed off speed and dynamism while carrying the football. The return to the playbook of called quarterback draws clearly through the Fighting Illini for a loop and these plays provide significant value to the Heels. Trubisky's success in the read option and called QB draws will further open up the playbook in the coming weeks and allow for the Heels to improve greatly on offense.
Defensive Line: 7
The defensive line is by far the most improved unit for the Heels this season, and Nazair Jones is quickly becoming a star. The line played well against the run and the pass, often shifting the line of scrimmage into the backfield. Setting aside the 65-yard touchdown run on the opening drive, which was not the fault of the defensive line, Illinois averaged 3.34 yards per carry. That is an excellent number and entirely a result of a strong performance by the defensive line. The line generated an outstanding push up front and they fully occupied the Illinois offensive line.
It was rare for either Illinois runners or linemen to make their way into the second level, and it was precisely because of the dominance of the Carolina front four. Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt was out of sorts all evening, he didn't plant his feet routinely and missed receivers in all directions. This inaccuracy from a fifth year player was due to the constant disruption of the pocket from the Carolina line. The Heels only had two sacks and two quarterback hits, but they routinely generated a quality pass rush, consolidated the pocket and forced poor throws.
Note on the 65-yard touchdown:
On that play the fighting Illini lined up in an unbalanced formation with extra players on the left side of the line. They then ran to the right. The defensive line on that play had four down linemen who each occupied one offensive lineman. The unencumbered offensive lineman was the left guard who pulled across the line into the area between the right guard and right tackle, this lineman then blocked the outside linebacker on that play springing the big run. The defensive lapse was that the other linebackers could not get across the formation to make a play and that there was no safety crashing into the box on that side of the line. It is unclear if that lapse was due to a player failing in their role or if it was a schematic flaw exposed by a good offensive play call.
The linebackers continue to be a weakness for the Heels. The linebackers are routinely picked on when they are in pass coverage, have issues tackling, and seem to have weaknesses with stopping the run. In pass coverage, Andre Smith and Cole Holcomb are exposed frequently. When Smith was covering wide receivers in the slot, his man was the target. Illinois found most of its success in the passing game over the middle with crossing routes were Smith was in coverage.
This is the second straight week where Smith has had issues in pass coverage. Over time, he should get better in coverage. It is hard to step into the college game as a new player and replace quality seniors at that position, but until then he needs help. The coaches should either give him safety help or play a nickel corner against slot receivers rather than a linebacker. Holcomb has not fared much better against the pass, as he was beaten again this week on a wheel route up the sideline but the pass was incomplete rather than caught in this game. Holcomb needs the same time to grow as Smith does and until should be given help proportionately.
Against the run the linebackers are still having issues tackling and covering ground. In Carolina's scheme, the linebackers must set the edge against the run, fill holes and move side to side with plays. This year has seen the Heels' linebackers struggle at each of those three facets, in addition to issues tackling. So far this season, the linebackers have seemed hesitant to attack gaps in the line when the opponent is running the ball.
This hesitancy is quite damaging for the Heels, as it typically leaves the linebackers a bit flat footed--allowing the opponent to gain extra yards and decreasing the effectiveness of their tackling. The linebackers need to pick holes and hit them hard, if the running back goes a different route then it will be easier for a defensive back to come in and clean the play up.
Edge setting is the most concerning of the weaknesses in the linebacker's play and it was significantly better this week. Against Georgia, Nick Chubb was able to start a run between the tackles and then bounce off a pile to the outside for extra yards. The Illinois game featured far fewer runs of that sort, but the Illini still found the most love outside of the hashmarks. Some of this might be schematic, the Heels' linebackers might need to shift to wider positions with an additional safety moving up in the box or the addition of another linebacker to the field. However, some type of improvement is needed in this area if the Heels are to take the next step as a run defense.
Defensive Backs: 7
Des Lawrence and M.J. Stewart are still excellent corners. Part of the reason why teams are picking on the linebackers so much is the fact that throwing at either of Carolina's outside players is an incredibly unappealing prospect. Illinois completed fewer than 50% of their passes, and Lunt frequently had to check down or received extra pressure in the pocket because none of his targets could get adequate separation. On the day, Lunt was 17-35 for only 127 yards. That's 3.63 yards per attempt and only 7.47 yards per completion.
Those are excellent numbers and the secondary is the reason why the Illinois passing offense struggled to such an extent. The strength of the corners allows the Heels to do so much on defense that they would not otherwise be able to accomplish or even attempt. Carolina rushed four for most of the night and had seven men in the box on most plays. With poor play from the corners, that's not possible. The Heels can trust their corners to cover receivers for long enough that a four man rush can get home. The corners do not each need safety help over the top, this lets another man drop into the box. The defensive backs have been excellent this season and it's a major source of the defense's success and gradual improvement in the Gene Chizik era.
Special Teams: 5
Outside of Ryan Switzer muffing a punt that eventually led to an Illinois touchdown, the special teams were once again a strength for the Heels. Switzer is an accomplished player at this point and, while it's a touch concerning that he has not established a consistent willingness to fair catch punts as a matter of course, he makes up for what he takes away with his hyperactivity in the return game. T.J. Logan had another excellent kick return this week. Nick Weiler missed a 40-yard FG into the wind, but he made his other two attempts, including a 49 yarder. Punter Tom Sheldon has been very good so far this season and is adjusting to American football well. Austin Proehl also got in on the action this week with a nice little punt return in the fourth quarter for 28 yards.
Coaching was much better this week, as the Heels played a much more professional game. Outside of the offensive line, the Heels substantially cut down on penalties and Carolina's poise strongly contrasted with the 13 penalty flags thrown on Illinois. The coaches also deserve credit for adopting a quality game plan. Illinois was clearly not as good a team as either Carolina or Georgia, and the Heels accordingly had a much simpler game plan.
The coaches did not call many exotic blitzes or overly intricate offensive plays. These plays weren't necessary to win the game and there is value in not over-complicating the game. Further, a simple game plan let the players highlight their strengths and bouce back from a dispiriting opening loss. That is an important coaching victory early in the season. Carolina was able to rebound very well from a bitter opening defeat last season and a turn around in this game was a necessary first step to repeating the feat.
At the same time, the coaches had a full week to diagnose what went wrong in Atlanta, and as professionals at a top athletic program this type of adjustment should be expected. The Heels improved their red zone efficiency and although they did not score to end the first half, the decision to go for six rather than three was correct as you would expect the Heels to gain two yards on any given play more than 40.6% of the time (including the probability that the extra point is good 95% of the time and that the short FG is good 94% of the time--which are admittedly arbitrary although not unreasonable assumptions).
A finer point of coaching that effected this game is recruiting. Under Larry Fedora, the Heels have seen a real decrease in quality of their linebackers. Carolina football has a proud tradition of excellent linebackers, the program's best player was a linebacker and linebackers are by far the most productive Tar Heel alumni in the NFL over the past few decades. But under Larry Fedora, this is the third year of walk-ons and former walk-ons playing substantial roles at linebacker. It's a departure from a proud tradition in Carolina football (one of the few historical strengths of a decidedly middling program).
Under the NCAA scholarship restrictions the coaches had to make choices and as an offensive coach, Coach Fedora clearly sacrificed defensive players. That decision making is fine, but the NCAA cloud has passed. In both of the games so far this season, the linebackers have struggled to beat running backs to the sideline and to tackle. Those two facets of the game are both related to coaching. Tackling can be taught in camp, but improvements in sideline pursuit come from either major speed work in the off-season or the recruitment of better athletes at that position. Now, both of Carolina's linebackers are young, if Cole Holcomb turns into Bruce Carter as he develops then this will no longer be an issue and will be an overwhelming coaching success. But this has now been a recurring issue for the Heels over the past few seasons and is a real sticking point for this defense.
In these two games, an opposing running play often either stopped at the defensive line or it went for more than five yards with a defensive back making the tackle. Against the better offensive line that the Heels saw in Georgia more runs ended up in the secondary than ending at the line. With a strong performance from the line against Illinois, the Heels stopped more runs at the line of scrimmage or in the backfield. But there is still this missing link where runs that are currently going for 7-15 yards should instead go for 3-6 yards, and that link is the linebackers. The coaches need to address that in some fashion as it was a problem over the past two seasons as well. The fix could be schematic, training based or recruiting based. But this is a long term issue for the Heels that needs concentrated attention from the coaching staff. If this team is to ascend beyond its historic mediocrity it needs to rediscover its greatest historic strength.