The Tar Heels captured their first win of the season on the road against Illinois this past Saturday. This bounce back game after a disappointing loss against the University of Georgia evens Carolina’s record on the year. Mitch Trubisky led the way for UNC against the Fighting Illini and first year Illinois coach Lovie Smith. Coach Larry Fedora spoke to the media after the game.
Fedora spoke about overcoming adversity during the game, especially on the road. There was a sellout crowd at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, and the Illinois faithful were out in full force to see Lovie Smith’s first game against a Power 5 conference opponent. The Illini did not disappoint the home crowd on the first drive, as Ke'Shawn Vaughn ran for a 65-yard touchdown.
Eventually, UNC settled down on both sides of the ball and went into halftime with an eight-point lead. Fedora addressed his decision to go for the end zone on a 3rd and 1 at the Illinois goal line with two seconds left on the clock. Fedora said:
Yeah that was all me. It was all me. Here’s my thinking: if we kick the field goal, alright we’ll go up by 11, I don’t know how much momentum we would have, our guys would be disappointed, and we’re getting the ball at the start of the second half. So I decided to go for it. Nobody but me, my fault.
You have to think this was about more than just a missed field goal and allowing a safety. Perhaps overcoming adversity was also about getting over a disappointing loss last week against Georgia and dropping out of the polls this week.
Trubisky and the Versatile Backfield
Quarterback Mitch Trubisky certainly took a step forward in the win over Illinois. He threw for 265 yards, tossed two touchdown passes, and added two more on the ground. This type of performance is what Fedora expects out of his junior playcaller:
He played well tonight. He took care of the football. He ran the ball. I know you guys got to see him run the ball and he ran the ball effectively. I thought he was really into it and sharp and focused the entire night. So yes, it's what I expect from him.
To the delight of many Tar Heels fans, there was a renewed commitment to running the ball this game. UNC had 37 attempts on the ground, compared to just 19 against Georgia last week. Running back Elijah Hood had two rushing touchdowns, including a 62-yard touchdown run. Running back T.J. Logan had 54 yards on the ground, and caught a Trubisky pass for a touchdown. Fedora was convinced that the commitment to the run game helped the passing attack, especially with play action passes. Let’s hope this continues next Saturday against James Madison University and into conference play. As they say, good things happen when you run the ball.
Adjustments on Defense
With a new coaching staff at Illinois, Fedora and defensive coordinator Gene Chizik faced a similar problem when they were reviewing the tapes against Georgia: Not enough film. Early on, it looked like the same run defense issues from UNC. However, Fedora credited adjustments throughout the game as the key to improving on defense. Fedora, when asked about stopping Illinois’s passing game, went back to talking about the defensive line:
Well we’ve got good coverage guys. I thought we got fairly good pressure on the quarterback so once we felt like we understood what they were going to try to do to us, our guys responded well.
Carolina’s defensive unit forced six fumbles, but was only able to recover one. Fedora is optimistic that the turnovers will come. The defensive unit is making the type of plays to cause turnovers, but need to finish the job. This is another type of adjustment that UNC will need to make going forward, especially in those big games in November and (hopefully) December when a forced turnover can decide the outcome.
It seems as though Coach Fedora will be making the most out of his talented backfield moving forward. He said, speaking of running backs Hood and Logan, that “we’ve got to keep those guys healthy, and we’ve got to keep them where they’re fresh throughout the entire year.” Two dangerous weapons in the backfield, especially when they are fresh, will be hard to handle for opposing defenses. A commitment to the run will keep opponents honest with three great options at wide receiver.
Linebacker Andre Smith set himself up to have a special year in the Illinois game. He posted a career high 14 tackles. Following Smith’s lead, the defense swarming to the ball will produce loose balls and eventually the forced turnovers Fedora wants out of that unit. This Saturday, the Tar Heels have the opportunity to continue to improve on defense and get some experience taking the ball away.
Watch the full interview from Coach Larry Fedora thanks to our friends at Inside Carolina.