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Highs and lows from UNC-Illinois

37 running plays led to 48 UNC points. That was probably not a coincidence.

Cincinnati v Purdue Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Saturday night, Tar Heels around the country let out a collective sigh of relief. The players and staff responded to some early adversity and left Champaign with a 25-point victory. In doing so, we were witnesses to Mitch Trubisky’s coming out party, another solid outing by the defensive tackles Nazair Jones and Jalen Dalton, and a renewed commitment to the running game. There were high-fives and smiles all around. Below, we dissect a few of the higher and lower moments of the game. I’ve added the highlight video from GoHeels.com for your Monday afternoon viewing pleasure.

Highs

Mitch Trubisky

This has been talked about ad nauseam, but Trubisky finally showed glimpses of the abilities that has had the coaching staff so excited. He was cool, calm, and collected in the pocket, despite shaky pass protection (to put it nicely). He consistently made the correct decision when presented with the read-option, and showed pinpoint accuracy that was missing against Georgia.

My personal favorite was his 20-yard pass down the right sideline to Khris Francis towards the end of the first half. The pocket collapsed on 2nd and 14, Trubisky rolled to the right, and found a backwards falling Francis right over the defender’s head. You can find that at the three minute mark in the above video.

Of course, his ability to use his legs was the most welcome sight. Trubisky answered some critics who have questioned his ability to run (me included). In doing so, he provided an extra dimension that was missing last week. As he gets settled as the starter, these kind of performances should become more common.

T.J. Logan

Ladies and gents, T.J. Logan would like to remind everyone that he is not just Elijah Hood’s sidekick. For the second straight week T.J. was a catalyst on offense and special teams. On offense, he only needed 11 touches to gain 88 yards. Nine rushes for 54 yards, and two catches for 34 yards.

That’s an average of eight yards per touch, and does not factor in two kick returns for 74 yards. One of those returns was another shake-your-head explosion for 58 yards. I would not be surprised if the past two weeks are likely the start of a trend instead of a situational fluke. Fully healthy after three years of various injuries, the coaching staff has finally figured out how to put Logan in positions to make a difference.

Before the season started, I expressed some ways that Logan would likely be used. The most notable and obvious way would be in the short passing game. His acceleration and elusiveness are a natural fit for Fedora’s offense when coming out of the backfield. Last night’s 24-yard touchdown down the right side was the perfect example of this utilization. Though he only had two receptions, fans should be ready and willing to see his targets increase.

Play Calling

The UNC coaching staff deserves kudos for their game plan and sticking with the running game. The team ran the ball 37 times, held the ball for over 25 minutes, and walked away with a 25-point win. The running game was also rewarded with a 62-yard Elijah Hood touchdown run to seal the victory. Raise your hand if you’re surprised. (Everyone should keep their hands down).

Additionally, UNC ran five plays inside the 10-yard line. Four of those plays were rushing plays. Three of those turned into touchdowns. That’s much different than last week’s scenario against Georiga, where UNC threw three incompletions from the 5-yard line at the end of the 1st half.

This is a very difficult, nuanced, detail-oriented game. It is not, however, rocket science.

Defensive Line

For all the hullabaloo about the defensive line struggling, they have actually done an admirable job the first two weeks - specifically Nazair Jones and Jalen Dalton. They followed up last week’s performance with eight more TFLs, two sacks, and two QB hurries. For the year UNC now has six sacks and 14 TFLs against two of their tougher opponents this season. (Any Power 5 foe, on the road, is a tough opponent). Last season UNC had a total of 23 sacks and 64 TFLs. The defense, largely led by the defensive line, is on pace to significantly improve both of those marks.

Now, any reasonable fan will fully acknowledge that Wes Lunt didn’t do the Illini any favors. However, some of his mistakes, poor footwork, and unforced errors were caused by the the d-line’s ability to be just disruptive enough. Lunt is a 5th year senior, so he didn’t just get rattled because of youth and inexperience. Plus, take away the early 65-yard TD, and UNC held Illinois to 117 yards on 35 carries. So, let’s ease up on the front four.

Lows

Safeties

Two in as many weeks. Fix this. Please.

Otherwise, just spot JMU two points next week before kick-off. We’ll call it even.

Lack of Turnovers

While UNC was mostly able to hold onto the ball (more on that in a moment), they also struggled for the second game to generate many takeaways. Part of this was due to Illinois game plan and offensive scheme. Despite being consistently behind, and finding no room to consistently run, Illinois still rushed 36 times. When they did pass, most of the passes were short and over the middle, where the UNC linebackers currently don’t have the necessary ball hawking skills.

However, Illinois did fumble the ball six times. UNC only recovered one of them. UNC may have gotten a little lucky last night as the game got out of hand. Teams like Pitt, FSU, and Miami won’t allow for that margin of error.

Special Teams

Ryan Switzer’s mental blackout and Nick Weiler’s missed field goal were two of the more frustrating moments. Does anyone have any idea what Switzer was thinking? His awkward diving/lunging attempt to field a punt that didn’t have to be caught allowed Illinois to make the game more interesting than it should have been.

It was the exact kind of mental breakdown UNC has mostly avoided over the first 120 minutes of the season - not including penalties. Switzer is going to return at least one punt to the end zone this season. He doesn’t have to force it.

Also, to be fair, Weiler’s miss was a 40-yard attempt into the wind. It happens. It was still better than whatever that atrocious beautiful outcome was for N.C. State in Greenville.

Explosive Pass Plays

It was disappointing to not see any explosive, game changing 40+ yard pass completions. Fortunately, UNC didn’t need them. They also didn’t really take any deep shots down the field. So relax, hold tight, and be patient. Bombs from Trubisky to Hollins/Howard/Switzer are coming.

Lovie Smith’s Cover/Tampa 2 defensive philosophy is specifically designed to take away those explosive plays. It also explicitly helps teams that may be young, inexperienced, or lacking talent. That’s exactly the personnel that Illinois has. Essentially, Smith wants you to beat his teams with short passes and running schemes. Challenge accepted. Mission accomplished.

Toss Up

Going For It

It’s not a UNC game unless Fedora’s decision making is scrutinized. No decision was more divisive than when UNC, holding an eight-point lead, went for the touchdown from the 2-yard line at the end of the half. At the time, a field goal would have given UNC an 11 point lead. A touchdown would have provided a 15 point cushion.

Take a chance? Or take the points?

Fedora gambled, and he lost. Fans howled with disgust. I was not one of them. Our own Paul Kushner touched on this in his in-depth review. Statistically, it wasn’t as shortsighted as some may have thought. It really was a low-risk, high-reward decision. Any other outcome was pure speculation by playing the “what-if” game. An eight-point lead or an 11-point lead, would still require an Illini two-point conversion. With a whole half to go, a field goal wouldn’t have ended anything. Another touchdown just may have.

Additionally, it sends a message to the players that sometimes you have to take something if you want it. The reaction of the team on the sidelines, and their quotes after the game, indicated they were fully supportive. Players want to be able to decide the game. Fedora gave them that opportunity.

My only gripe was the decision to pass. As noted above, four running plays inside the 5-yard line were rewarded with three touchdowns. The only pass inside the five was incomplete.

Bear Bryant, whose teams were notoriously known for stout goal line defending, was once asked how he had so much success. He responded with, “Make them pass.” Again, this game is difficult. It is not quantum physics.

Good to know that there are still improvements to be made.