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Three highs and three lows from UNC-PITT

Saturday’s showdown was full of memorable highs and forgettable lows.

James Madison v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Saturday’s ACC opener between North Carolina and Pittsburgh was every bit as frustrating, thrilling, and memorable as should’ve been expected. Before the season began I mentioned how this was the scariest, if not the most important game, of the season. With both teams providing such a drastic contrast in styles, these roller-coaster-of-emotion games are becoming the norm when these two programs meet.

Fortunately, UNC managed to come from behind and grab a tough, gritty win. It was a welcome sight for a team that has struggled in close games where the opponent’s talent level is as good as, or better, than UNC. In doing so, the Heels displayed a few highlights to celebrate and give fans, coaches, and players optimism for the rest of the season. They also walked off the field with plenty of questions and concerns that still need to be addressed.

Highs

Mitch Trubisky

We’re running out of ways to be impressed. Trubisky was poised, calm, and unflappable to the tune of 453 yards, 5 TDs, and 0 interceptions. Despite a shaky offensive line that allowed four sacks, and almost destroyed any hope of victory on the final drive, Trubisky never panicked. See the video below for all three 4th down conversions while staring down a relentless Pitt pass rush. Or, read David Hale’s article that describes how and why he decided to let Hood run on 2nd down with no timeouts. Dude must be a White Walker, because he has straight ice in his veins.

Wide Receivers. All of them.

Mitch doesn’t have success without Ryan Switzer, Bug Howard, or Austin Proehl. Switzer was in All-American form as he entered the UNC and ACC record books tying the all-time single game reception mark with 16. The Heels needed every single last reception that he had to offer, including two 4th down conversions on that final drive.

After three relatively quiet weeks, Howard reminded fans that he’s still part of the team, specifically in the red zone. His two 4th quarter TD receptions were as clutch as a WR can be in college football. It’s even better that Howard even told Pitt’s DB Ryan Lewis what play UNC was going to run.

Proehl also had his coming out party with seven catches for 99 yards and a touchdown. However, none were bigger than his 4th down catch to extend the final drive. Teammates and coaches have raved about his precision and route running, and his final catch along the left side was definitive proof. Trubisky tossed it to Proehl before he had even broken out of his route. UNC may have found their fourth receiving option to replace the hole left by Quinshad Davis’ departure.

Heart/Grit/Attitude/Swag

Pick any word you want. UNC possesses the ability to never give up and never stop believing. It sounds childish and cliche. It’s not. Since that embarrassing bowl loss to Rutgers after the 2014 season, Fedora changed the culture inside the UNC locker room. The belief that they are never out of any game is a result of that change.

The past two seasons are full of examples. Two hard earned road wins against the Techs last season. Two heart breaking one-possession losses to USC and Clemson. An infuriating defeat to Georgia. Now, perhaps an exclamation point to this never-say-die attitude, with an epic fourth quarter to defeat Pittsburgh.

This season’s schedule is much tougher than last year’s. That belief is going to be tested almost every week. UNC may still stumble along the way, but I’m convinced it won’t be because of their attitude.

There have been memorable finishes, and exciting victories in Chapel Hill before (Gio and 1999 come to mind. LOL State). However, if UNC wins the Coastal again, we may look back and say this was the most impressive and important win at Kenan since that 1996 shellacking of Clemson.

***BONUS***

Goal line play calling

I’ve been a huge critic of UNC’s play calling near the goal line this year. Specifically, they go to the air way too often instead of pounding it in. On Saturday, they threw three touchdowns from inside the five-yard line. I was ecstatic. Why? Every single completion was set up by a previous running play.

Proehl’s touchdown was preceded by rushing attempts by Trubisky and Hood. These perfectly set up a read-option roll-out to the right that sucked the defense to the middle of the line. As the defense keyed on the run option, Proehl was wide open in the back of the end zone. Trubisky delivered a perfect pass as he was knocked to the ground.

Both of Howard’s receptions were after an Elijah Hood carry through the middle. These attempts kept the safety from cheating to the outside in coverage on the ensuing pass.

All of these plays showed an improvement in play-calling and awareness from the first three games, where decisions to throw the ball near the goal line resulted in zero completions.

Lows

Everything else. Every single other facet of the game.

I’m all for celebrating and enjoying a huge win over a very tough team. However, don’t let the euphoria of a stunning, dramatic win take away from the fact that this UNC team is littered with flaws. It’s healthy to be honest with ourselves.

The offensive line. The run defense. The lack of forced turnovers. The inability to consistently stop anything on 3rd down. The “fans”. Defensive schemes. Offensive play calling. Where do we start?

Offensive Line

Pittsburgh’s front seven is very tough. UNC’s offensive line entered the season as one of the more experienced, successful units in the nation. Yet, through four games the offensive line has been average at best. That trend continued on Saturday.

They allowed four sacks, including one on the final drive. Those were coupled with two potentially game-ending penalties on the final two drives. Trubisky found himself having to scramble throughout the night. Not to mention the lack of running lanes the Heels were able to establish.

If these were new developments last night, against a staunch opponent, maybe we could be more forgiving. Fans and coaches can probably object or rationalize why these were all issues last night. Fine. Rationalize all you want. It doesn’t change the fact that there are some problems that are not getting resolved.

Pittsburgh just exposed them to a greater extent than we’ve seen. Creating run gaps between the tackles have been a struggle. Seven sacks allowed to three FBS teams is not optimal. Missing blocking assignments has become normal (and have directly contributed to two of the three safeties). Maybe they miss Landon Turner more than anyone expected. Or maybe Marquise Williams’ running ability helped mask these deficiencies last year.

Run Defense

You know that obnoxious guy at the bar? The one who needs attention on him all night long, but everyone actively tries to ignore him? Then, right before last call, he buys everyone a round? Almost like he’s apologizing for his behavior and hopes you’ll forgive him? That’s UNC’s run defense.

The Tar Heel defense waited until the last possible moment to come up with some big stops, and gave the offense just enough time to capitalize. Unfortunately, that doesn’t absolve them of another horrendous showing. They miss tackles. They miss assignments. They are consistently clueless on third down, as they’ve allowed a 47.69% conversion rate, good for 116th in the nation. They can’t force long passing situations to let their secondary take advantage and maybe force one interception.

Paul’s positional grades identifies UNC’s reliance on nickel schemes as a possible reason for the problems. Maybe there is some truth there. Whatever the reason, a quarter of the way through this season, it’s time to be realistic. This run defense has not improved. In fact, it may have gotten worse, and there are no signs of relief.

“Fans”

It was frustrating. It was ugly. There were almost zero redeemable qualities for the first 50 minutes of the game. However, the reactions of the fans via social media and in the stadium was embarrassing. The team deserved better considering it was only a two possession game entering the final period.

Games are four quarters and 60 minutes for a reason. It’s a good thing the players and coaches understand this, because many fans sure didn’t. At least, not according the amount of people who emptied their seats in the 4th quarter. Some estimates said 20-30% of the stadium cleared out. Well done guys and gals. Especially on a weekend that featured more than a few prominent football and basketball recruits.

Expectations coming into this season were high. They still are high. Every pre-season goal is still intact. That was the case with 10 minutes to go on Saturday. Yet, if the team showed the same amount of intestinal fortitude as the fans, they would be lucky to return to the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit. Thank God that isn’t the case.

Programs aren't built overnight. Sometimes they aren’t built over a few seasons. Games like Saturday’s are going to happen. That’s college football. If fans want UNC to continue on an upward trajectory, we’re going to have to be part of that process. We can’t do that from the parking lot while the game is still being played.

Conclusion

A win is a win. Everyone should enjoy it. Just understand there are more battles if something doesn’t change. There is still time to make corrections, but October is creeping up. Soon enough noticeable patterns are going to become irreversible trends. Luckily this team won’t stop until the final whistle of the season blows.