Despite a rocky first quarter defensively, the Heels ended up blowing out James Madison 56-28 on Saturday in Chapel Hill. The offense was the story for the Heels in their home opener, with Carolina scoring touchdowns on each drive the first team offense took the field.
Quarterback Mitch Trubisky set school records in consecutive passes completed with 17 and pass attempts without an interception with 155 dating back to last season. Carolina overcame early struggles on defense to hold the Dukes to only seven points after the first quarter, helping the Heels cruise to a blowout win.
Position Group Grades (1-10 scale 10 is the best)
Offensive Line: 8
The offensive line submitted its most complete performance of the season against the Dukes. The line opened up large holes for the running backs and kept a clean pocket for Trubisky all afternoon. Trubisky was not sacked on Saturday and was only knocked down once. In the run game, the Heels generated a strong push up front to create running lanes for both Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan. Linemen were frequently able to single-team the JMU defensive line and move into the second level to secure extra yards for the Carolina runners.
In pass protection, the line was nearly perfect as Trubisky wasn’t touched until the third quarter. He was hardly ever hurried or under any significant pressure. Such was the offensive line’s dominance, that the Heels did not even need to leave a running back in the backfield as an extra blocker for most of the game. Much of the success of the offensive line has to do with the quality of the opponent. The Heels clearly got a boost from playing at home and against and FCS opponent for the first time this season. The offensive line was able to settle into this game against their easiest opponent of the year and play a quality game.
That being said, the Heels still had three false starts against the Dukes. Carolina needs to stay focused on eliminating penalties in games because down the road they will be in much tighter contests than they were against JMU. Later in the season there is the potential for penalties to swing drives, games, and seasons if they occur at the wrong times. The offensive line played much better against the Dukes, but they need to perform at that same level against better competition and work on cutting out penalties.
Running Backs and Receivers: 9
Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan took full advantage of the offensive line’s improved performance on Saturday. The two backs combined for 147 yards on 27 carries with five touchdowns. Logan showed his top end speed in getting to the edge and accelerating past potential tacklers. Hood showed the quality he displayed frequently a season ago with dominating runs on his 18 carries.
The first man never brought Hood down, and he finished his runs through contact for extra yards. Though normally most efficient between the tackles, Hood also displayed some quick lateral bursts, allowing him to bounce runs outside around the edge for extra yards. In the passing game, Logan showed out for the Heels, burning the JMU defense for 44 yards on two catches. The most remarkable play for Logan was a 32 yard reception on a wheel route out of the backfield. This was one of the two plays on the day where Trubisky saw any pressure from the Dukes’ defense, but Trubisky extended the play and Logan fought to get open and secure the catch for a big gain.
The awareness to work with his quarterback to maximize the play’s potential is not something that most running backs have, or that Logan himself showed last season. Logan has been a breakout player for the offense so far this year and this new awareness in the passing game was merely another example of his stellar development.
The wide receivers were similarly excellent on Saturday as the team went without a dropped pass. Mack Hollins and Ryan Switzer were the standout wideouts with 94 and 101 yards, respectively, but Austin Proehl and Bug Howard also stepped up in key moments.
Hollins, Switzer, and Howard each caught touchdowns with Switzer and Hollins hauling in Trubisky’s first quality deep passes of the season for scores. Howard made a couple of outstanding catches early in the game and was fully deserving of the touchdown he scored on a red zone wide receiver screen. The emergence of Proehl might be the most critical takeaway from this game. The junior wideout had five catches for 84 yards.
What was unique for Proehl when compared to the rest of the receivers, was the fact that his longest reception was only 23 yards. His catches were for steady chunks of yardage to extend drives and take pressure off of Trubisky. If Proehl truly emerges as the fourth wide receiver for the Heels as an alternative safety valve to Switzer, then fewer drives will stall and the offense could break more records than they did last year.
Trubisky literally broke records against the Dukes. He completed 17 straight passes in a stellar performance, ending the day 24-27 with 432 yards and three scores. Trubisky also set the school record for consecutive passes without an interception with 155. It certainly helped Trubisky to have a clean pocket on Saturday but he still deserves credit for taking advantage of the line’s performance.
Trubisky moved through his progressions, found open receivers and had perfect touch on nearly all of his passes. The most notable improvement for Trubisky was his deep ball accuracy. Early in the game he overthrew tight end Carl Tucker as Tucker streaked towards the end zone with a few steps on his man. But after that, Trubisky’s accuracy was impeccable, nailing the flea flicker to Switzer and dropping a deep ball to Hollins as perfectly as possible. Trubiksy also chipped in running the football with 26 yards on five carries for a respectable 5.2 yards per carry. If his legs remain a part of the Carolina offense, defenses will have even more to contend with when facing the Heels.
Defensive Line: 4
Nazair Jones did not play for the Heels on Saturday and it showed throughout the first quarter. The defensive line did not have any push up front and the Dukes’ runners were regularly getting to the second level with a head of steam. Carolina clearly struggled to establish a quality run defense and exposed their linebackers and safeties early and often. It was not until well into the second quarter that the defensive line started to limit running plays to short yardage and put the Dukes in a position where they would have to throw the football. As the game progressed, the line’s play improved and the defense ensured that the final three quarters were the somnambulant affair that most anticipated.
This game highlighted how thin the Heels are up front. Jones is the best player on the line, if not the entire defense, but his loss was incredibly dramatic. The defensive line should have had the same advantages as the offensive line by facing their weakest opponent of the season. Instead, the Heels’ defensive line was often unable to beat single teams from the Dukes which allowed James Madison’s running backs to get into the secondary for large gains.
Carolina’s backup defensive linemen had to play a lot of minutes in this game but they should still be able to outplay FCS offensive linemen. Later in the game, this did not seem to be as much of a problem for Carolina, as their run defense improved incrementally throughout the game. But improvement as the game goes on is not enough for this team to live up to their preseason goals and for them to beat the teams coming up on their schedule. The defensive line badly needs Jones back, but also needs to improve across the board. Jones is one player and the line is a whole unit. Carolina needs the rest of the unit to step up to the level of their star, precisely to make sure that he is not as much of a lynch-pin in the future.
The defensive line also had its fair share of penalties in this game, with Jalen Dalton standing out for all the wrong reasons. Dalton got two fifteen yard penalties after James Madison touchdowns on Saturday. This type of play doesn’t matter much against an FCS team, but it very well could in a close game. The coaches need to cut these plays out of the defensive line’s future performance as much as they do the offensive line’s performance, or it could end up costing the Heels down the road.
Despite the fact that the line put in their worst performance of the season so far, the linebackers were still run around and through too frequently. Too frequently in the run game did safeties and corners have to come up to make plays after the defensive line and linebackers had already been beat. The linebackers were facing the same FCS players as the rest of the defense and they were still not able to make plays throughout much of the early parts of the game.
Even though the unit played poorly, the tenor of the game on defense changed when the coaches increased the amount of playing time they gave to Cayson Collins. Collins ended up leading the team in tackles with 10 and was the Heels’ most active defensive play-maker. Collins covered ground in both the run game and pass game but his lateral coverage in the run game really changed what the Heels could do on defense. Collins appeared to be the strongest linebacker of the three who see regular playing time. He moves well across the field and also hits holes hard in the running game—he had two tackles for loss against the Dukes. The coaches like to run their base defense in the nickel with only two linebackers, Collins has proved that he should be one of the two on the field.
Defensive Backs: 6
The safeties had a very strong game on Saturday while the corner play was decidedly more mediocre. Safeties Donnie Miles, Dominique Green and Myles Dorn all recorded at least five tackles with Miles’ nine second on the team behind Collins. The safeties routinely needed to make plays in the run game to serve as damage control and they successfully made those plays each time. Dorn’s performance was particularly notable. As a true freshman in only his third college game, Dorn played like a veteran, he made quality tackles in the running game, displayed plus field awareness and showed that he had clearly adjusted to the speed of the college game.
The corner play was by far the weakest of the season with Des Lawrence submitting his most inconsistent game in more than a year. Lawrence was routinely picked on by JMU in the passing game. Lawrence committed a 15 yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty to extend JMU’s second drive and was beaten on a slant for a first down later on that drive. Lawrence allowed two more big completions against the Dukes. Most notably, on the Dukes’ sole scoring drive of the last three quarters, Lawrence allowed a 14 yard completion on a 4th and 11, the Dukes scored 4 plays later.
The flip side of Lawrence’s disappointing plays was the fact that he broke up three passes on Saturday to easily lead the team. Importantly, after he was beaten on the 4th down pass, he was thrown at two more times and he broke up each of those passes. That ability to respond to adversity is what makes Lawrence and M.J. Stewart top corners. They do not let the game situation overly affect them and when challenged they respond with force. Dating back to last season, it has been very rare for teams to throw at Lawrence or Stewart, but James Madison quarterback Bryan Schor—who played very well on Saturday—fit footballs into very tight windows around Lawrence multiple times. Rather than shirk from the challenge, Lawrence responded by breaking up those final two passes, reminding teams who watch film of this game, why most teams avoid him.
Special Teams: 5
Carolina’s special teams did not have a lot to do against James Madison. Tom Sheldon had one punt, which was a fine punt. Nick Weiler only had to kick extra points, he made all 8 of them—as expected. Weiler’s kickoffs went for touchbacks five out of eight times, but he was pushed back 15 yards on one kickoff which he sent to the 9—still quite good. On the return side, T.J. Logan had a few fine returns but nothing spectacular.
Ryan Switzer tried a gimmicky punt return where he acted as if he fair caught the punt but then sprinted forward after the coverage team relaxed. It might have worked if he hadn’t immediately burst into a full sprint, but it certainly wasn’t the best decision. Switzer tried this when the Heels were up 28 in the fourth quarter. This both showed on film that he’s going to try this and it opened him up to an injury on this play in a meaningless part of a blowout against an FCS school.
In the future, this probably means that he will actually call for a fair catch but get absolutely annihilated by a player on the coverage team in a situation where he could get hurt in a game that matters. It seemed like a college student just trying to have fun in a game that was past competitive, which, in the big picture, is absolutely fine. But, like many times when college students try to have fun, it was not a good idea.
The Heels beat an FCS team by 28, when you schedule an FCS team at home and aren’t Kansas, you should typically win by about 28. The coaches did not have to do a lot of special things in this game. On offense, they could call relatively vanilla plays in vanilla schemes for 90% of plays and experiment a bit for the rest of the game. The Heels used a little bit more creativity early in the game when the Dukes were still hanging with Carolina by calling the flea flicker and a few exotic screen passes. But once the scoreline adequately reflected the balance of power the Heels quickly resorted to simpler plays.
The game situation did let the coaches explore their personnel on offense. Proehl got his most sustained run of play all season, sophomore Thomas Jackson caught four passes for 22 yards and backup quarterback Nathan Elliott got to play two series. All reps in any game are useful for underclassmen and it was good for the coaches to be able to run out a larger compliment of players.
On defense the coaches still have some work to do. The run defense continues to be a problem for the Heels and it took them too long to discover their best defensive line personnel as well as the fact that Collins is their best linebacker. The defense rarely called run blitzes which allowed the Dukes to get their offensive linemen up the field to create more room for their running backs. If the coaches are going to keep running the nickel as their base defense then they need to figure out how to make modifications in the run game.
There are several alterations that they could make to try to fix this, the most obvious of them would be to make the linebackers’ jobs easier by changing the defensive line’s gap assignments. By creating obvious holes for the linebackers to plug in the run game, the Heels would allow for them to have to make fewer decisions against the run which would let them commit to getting up field faster. An alternative to changing the gap assignments would be to move the strong safety closer to the line of scrimmage.
A downside of having only two linebackers on the field is that edge pursuit typically has only one man on it instead of two on sweeps and off-tackle runs. Moving a safety a few yards infield would essentially create a pseudo-middle linebacker to help with runs to the edge of the field, an aspect of the running game the Heels have struggled with so far this season.
Across the board, the coaches need to focus on curtailing the number of penalties. The Heels had 10 penalties for 110 yards on Saturday. When you’re favored by 25, you can shrug that off. When the Heels face quality ACC competition later this season, those can easily cost a team games. Last season seemed to show that Carolina had killed its proclivity for penalties under Larry Fedora, but the yellow flags have been a staple of their first three games this year. The road to the ACC title game is much more difficult this season and penalties will make it needlessly more difficult.