Carolina once again started the season out in with a loss to an SEC team with their defeat to Georgia in Atlanta. Georgia's superstar running back, Nick Chubb, gashed the Heels for 222 yards on 32 carries to lead the Bulldogs to victory. Carolina is yet to beat an FBS team in their season opener under Coach Larry Fedora.
Positional Grades (1-10 scale, 10 is best)
Offensive Line: 2
While the coaching will certainly be a major headline to come out of this game, the offensive line played one of its worst games of the Larry Fedora era. Georgia is a strong SEC team, but the line played much better against Clemson's All-Americans in the ACC championship just a year ago. Quarterback Mitch Trubisky barely had any time in the pocket on most of his throws throughout the game. On pass plays without play-action, the pocket collapsed on Trubisky incredibly quickly, with each of his linemen equally at fault for lapses in protection.
The Bulldogs did not send a lot of exotic blitzes at the Heels either, most cases were simply a man in red beating a guy in blue. This had serious consequences for the Heels outside of the obvious pressure it put on Trubisky. After the first few series, the Heels kept Hood or Logan in the backfield to hedge against pressure on Trubisky while the production of the tight ends in the passing game also completely disappeared, leaving only three or four options for the quarterback instead of the normal five. Because the offensive line failed to cover Trubisky adequately, the Heels were forced to change their offense substantially and it showed.
A great strength of the Heels' offense in the past has been the success of plays where the quarterback, rather than force a throw, dumps it off to a running back who gets about five yards. Over the course of a game, those five yard chunks add up and help you both stay on schedule and sustain drives. When the offensive line plays as poorly as it did against Georgia, these opportunities disappear and the offense is much less effective.
The line also failed to consistently generate running lanes up the middle of the field for Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan. Most of the Heels' ground game success came on runs to the outside where Hood or Logan broke tackles or ran past Georgia players in the second level. In particular, Hood is a downhill, north-south runner who does his best work in between the tackles. When the offensive line fails to generate an adequate push up front, the running backs will suffer, with Hood suffering the most.
Logan is the faster of the two backs, which is one reason why he was utilized more in this game than most observers of the Heels are used to. Logan's style lends itself to runs off-tackle and outside of the hash marks which he was still able to do against the Bulldogs. For Hood to get back to where he was last season, he needs the line to create holes up front to let him go to work between the tackles--that will require the center and guards to pick up their level of play from how they performed in this contest. Issues with blocking for runners also appeared in the screen game, something the Heels generally abandoned as the game progressed.
From an early failed tunnel screen for Ryan Switzer to the glorious end zone screen play call that went for a UGA safety, the offensive line was unable to clear adequate space for screens to develop the way the offense requires. Screens form a big part of the up-tempo aspect of the Fedora offense by reducing the amount of time between snaps since the linemen are already farther down the field. Successful execution of screens would have also paired back the aggression of the Georgia defense and given Trubisky a bit more time to find receivers from the pocket.
And finally, the offensive line also had issues with penalties throughout the night, picking up multiple false starts as well as a hold, and an ineligible man down field penalty. No matter how much faith you have in the officials, there were far too many penalties against the offensive line to be attributed to a few bad calls. Poor discipline was a bugaboo of the early Fedora-era Carolina teams but last season was a welcome reprieve from those types of dumb mistakes. Fans can only hope that this game was an aberration, rather than return to the old normal.
Running Backs and Wide Receivers: 7
On the whole, Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan had good games. Hood recorded 72 yards on 10 carries while also being a useful receiver with six catches for 28 yards as a safety valve. There isn't much that he can do about his workload, and he did well with the number of touches that he was given. He did make the mistake of catching a screen pass in the end zone, but that was also the play the coaches drew up for him, so I feel it's a bit unfair to ding him for doing what he was both trained and told to do. Logan was even more impressive than Hood, returning a kickoff for a touchdown and showing dynamite speed with the rock in his hands. Both Hood and Logan picked up pass rushers quite well when they were tasked with protecting Trubisky.
The pass catchers were pretty disappointing on the whole. Mack Hollins was more of a hurt than a help in his one half of play, picking up a *questionable* offensive pass interference penalty against only one catch for six yards. Ryan Switzer was the most impressive of the group with seven catches for 52 yards. Switzer displayed good awareness of where he was in the field and was the third best player for the Heels on offense after Logan and Hood. Bug Howard was surprisingly absent, he could have done better on a first half jump-ball in the end zone against a much shorter corner on a ball that was thrown relatively well. That potential first half score would have greatly helped the the Heels as they moved into the second half and potentially changed the course of the game.
One performance among the wideouts stuck out however, and that was Austin Proehl. Proehl dropped what was Trubisky's best deep ball of the game when he had a step on his man in the the first half. It's another case of a dynamite play the Heels left on the field. If Proehl picks up big yardage or even scores there, then the complexion of the ball game changes entirely. This would not only be seen on the scoreboard but it would also have forced the Georgia safeties to honor the deep ball more and open up throws in the middle of the field for intermediate gains--enabling the Tar Heels to step up the pace with a series of first downs.
A large portion of Carolina supporters thought that this team could lose Marquise Williams and actually improve on offense. Such was the faith in red-shirt junior Mitch Trubisky, who, in his debut as the undisputed starter, largely disappointed. He missed every deep ball he threw and did not always make the best decisions with the football. Notably, he failed to see Ryan Switzer break past double coverage on a go route out of the slot for what could have been a huge play for Carolina. The speed of the Georgia front seven noticeably bothered Trubisky, who struggled to move through his progressions with so much pressure in his face.
Trubisky has wheels but stayed largely behind the line of scrimmage throughout the game, and it has to be said that this may be a significant adjustment for Carolina after years of Williams' willingness to run with the football. When Trubisky did throw the ball he showed off plus arm strength, but also exhibited severe control issues on throws more than 20 yards down the field. Not only did he miss multiple deep throws, he also risked several interceptions with poor positioning of the football--skying some throws and missing the mark on others. These could be first game jitters combined with facing an exceptionally quick defense, the likes of which he has never seen before. But some of these issues could be structural, if his accuracy does not improve on intermediate and deep throws, then there could be a severe ceiling on the Heels' performance this season.
Defensive Line: 5
The defensive line was on the field for 38:05 of total game time. That's too much for a group that still does not have ideal depth. With that taken into account, the defensive line really played quite well. The line was able to get significant pressure in the pass rush and, although they allowed a lot of yards on the ground (289 to be exact), UGA was more successful running outside the tackles rather than up the middle. Nazair Jones remains the standout member of that unit for Carolina with seven tackles and a half sack in the game. This game was certainly an improvement over the performance of the unit in the final games of last season. The defensive line was able to hold its ground against the Georgia offensive line on most plays rather than being blown off the line of scrimmage by a few yards as they frequently were against Clemson and Baylor.
The linebackers were the weakest part of the defense's performance. Linebackers were beat in coverage against wide receivers and off the edge by running backs. The defensive line did a relatively good job of occupying blockers but the linebackers failed to consistently hit their gap assignments and plug up holes in the running back. When the Georgia running backs ran sweeps or bounced it outside the linebackers had real issues with lateral movement to prevent large gains. On sweeps, the linebackers failed to get around the edge and shed blocks, forcing the secondary to have to make extra plays.
A larger issue for the linebackers was that they failed to keep contain on runs where the Georgia runners bounced outside when their intended running lane was full. There were several plays where the defense did its job for the initial Georgia play call, but then runners had freedom to just run around the over-committed linebackers to pick up easy yards. When the linebackers did execute their positioning well, they had tackling problems. The struggles tackling showed that the linebackers were green and inexperienced in this contest as they failed to wrap-up when tackling and often were not set when the Bulldogs snapped the ball.
Defensive Backs: 6
The defensive backs played relatively well on the whole. Patrice Rene got a rather rude welcome to the college game with a pair of pass interference penalties, but Des Lawrence and M.J. Stewart played at their normal high level to lead the unit. Stewart forced the game's one turnover and Lawrence had a sack. But for most of the night, the corners did not have much to do. Georgia refrained from picking on Stewart and Lawrence, preferring to brutalize linebackers and safeties. While this was how Georgia picked up yardage on multiple occasions, the strength of the Heels' top two corners allowed the Heels to move more men into the box to slow down the Georgia running attack.
Special Teams: 9
T.J. Logan returned a kickoff for a touchdown. Nick Weiler was perfect with his kicks and new Aussie punter Tom Sheldon played well in his American football debut. The coverage when the Heels were kicking to Georgia was good, Weiler booted all of his kicks for touchbacks and Sheldon handled the safety punt well.
The Heels' third quarter implosion was aided by a meltdown from the head coach himself. Coach Fedora compounded bad field position from a penalty on the offensive line with an additional unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for arguing with officials. This led to the safety and the complete shift the in game's momentum. In fact, after Fedora's penalty, the Heels would not score again, while Georgia scored 12 straight points to take the lead and ice the game. The coaching staff's play calling choices were further confusing in this game.
The most glaring example of this was the fact that the coaches called a screen pass within their own end zone which created a ready-made safety for Georgia. The Heels ran the ball with great effectiveness, averaging 8.4 yards per carry; however, they only gave running backs the ball 16 times despite leading for a sizable portion of the second half. The Heels also continued to throw downfield but only targeted Hollins, the nominal deep threat, once down the field. On defense the play calling was much better--they called an excellent mix of blitzes to be sure--but there were still a few head-scratching decisions with the secondary.
Rene picked up his two penalties on one drive on exceptionally similar plays. He was playing one-on-one man coverage on deep go routes each time. But the coaches did not give him any safety help over the top. This was his first game as a true freshman playing against a team with quality talents at receiver, after the first penalty he should have had safety help. On Jacob Eason's 51-yard pass play, the Heels had an outside linebacker in the slot up against one of Georgia's most explosive players, once again, the Heels failed to give a weak link in coverage enough safety help as he was late getting over to that side of the field.
Avoiding penalties is another critical part of coaching that the Heels seem to have regressed on. Not only did the coaching staff get an unsportsmanlike conduct, but the Heels totaled 13 penalties for 101 yards. That is a sharp regression from last season and something the coaches should be able to put a stop to with dedicated work on the practice field. Last season the Heels did an excellent job of cutting down on penalties compared to previous years but this game seemed to be a regression.
The coaches have put in a much better performance in the past and have gotten the team to rebound from poor starts before--last season is an excellent example. But this season seems to already require a substantial amount of work on that front. Rather than building on the successes of last year, the Heels are still winless in season openers against FBS teams under Larry Fedora, and this team seems to have gotten worse than the one that ended the year with a loss against Baylor. The coaching staff proved last year that they have what it takes to right the ship after a disappointing first game, we'll see if they can repeat the feat this season.