The UNC football team entered the 2016 season with optimism, lofty goals, and high expectations. While the Heels did finish the year with an 8-5 record, the program seemed as though it was finally poised to break onto the national scene on a weekly basis. At one point, Mitch Trubisky was even being mentioned as a possible dark horse for the Heisman trophy.
Unfortunately, sometimes life, luck, and opposing teams provide obstacles. That was certainly the case this year, but there were also a few memorable moments for the right reasons. Numerous plays, both positive and negative, helped shape this past season. Below, we take a look at five moments that were the most influential for the year.
John Ferranto’s Injury
The offensive line was considered to be one of the biggest, if not THE biggest strength of the UNC offense during the pre-season. Returning four of five starters, including two returning 2nd Team All-ACC selections in Jon Heck and Caleb Peterson, UNC was poised to continue their prolific scoring ways of 2015.
Ferranto, a 5th year senior and part-time starter (17 starts at left tackle), was expected to replace All-Everything right guard Landon Turner, who had graduated and moved onto the NFL. Instead, a torn pectoral muscle forced Tommy Hatton, William Sweet, and R.J. Prince to rotate through the position as the year progressed.
That began a season-long roller coaster of injuries on the offensive line, and suddenly UNC’s biggest asset quickly became its most consistent weakness. The offensive line never looked completely in sync, much like UNC’s season. While cliche, it’s true that football is won “in the trenches”. The Heels struggled to win many battles there throughout the year.
Bug Howard’s Heroics
Bug Howard was an admirable ambassador for UNC football during his time in Carolina Blue. However, his most memorable contribution will always be the Chaos in Kenan. Pittsburgh visited Chapel Hill for the fourth game of the season. Their run-heavy offense was the perfect kryptonite to UNC’s explosive offense and anemic run defense.
As such, the Panthers controlled the majority of the contest. So much so, that mid-way through the fourth quarter, many fans had already left the stadium, convinced UNC was about to lose another disappointing game. Mitch Trubisky and Bug Howard had other ideas. Already with one touchdown in the 4th quarter, the duo teamed up one more time with two seconds remaining.
After an incomplete pass to Howard on a WR fade route to the corner of the end zone, and an Elijah Hood rushing attempt that was stuffed just short of the goal line, Mitch and Bug hooked up one more time. The result was pandemonium in the stands and on the field, and Howard forever endeared himself to UNC fans. It also provided UNC with a 3-1 record as they prepared to head to Tallahassee the following week. Enjoy it again, just one more time.
Nick Weiler’s Tomahawk Chop
Sure, it was really Nick Weiler’s 54-yard field goal that technically won the game for UNC as they continued their push for another ACC Coastal title. His powerful cannon of a leg allowed UNC to leave Tallahassee with a 4-1 record, and left Jimbo Fisher with an 0-2 record against UNC. If the Heels had run off the field at that very moment, it would've been the most important (and improbable) game-winning play since...well Bug Howard against Pitt.
Yet, Weiler’s immediate actions after the kick ensured he will never have to buy another drink in Chapel Hill. Ever. With his hair blowing majestically in the wind, he produced a spur of the moment, tomahawk chopping sprint down the field in a wild celebration. The typically reserved, mild-mannered special teams stalwart provided a highlight for the ages, and plenty of fodder with which to troll #FSUtwitter.
The ‘Noles may have earned a trip to a New Year’s Six bowl game, but UNC fans will always have this video.
Mack Hollins’ Injury
Unfortunately, plays that had negative outcomes were also extremely influential on the outcome of the season. This is undeniably true of Mack Hollins’ collarbone, which met its destruction down in Coral Gables against the Hurricanes of Miami. Hollins was lost in the first half on an under-thrown deep ball. Mack made the catch (of course he did), but when his body crashed to earth, his collarbone ceased to exist in one piece.
Injuries are part of the game, and there was optimism that UNC had enough depth at WR to adequately replace Mack. While UNC wasn’t going to replicate his ability to stretch the field on deep routes, there was thought to be enough talent to replace his production. At least to some extent. That turned out to be wishful thinking.
With Mack Hollins, excluding the Virginia Tech/Hurricane Matthew game, where UNC had a total of 58 passing yards (and were missing Elijah Hood), UNC averaged 340 passing yards per game. After the Miami game, without Mack in the line-up, UNC averaged 285 passing yards per game.
While that’s not terrible, it is a noticeable decline. Bug Howard did not have the speed to consistently stretch the defense, and Ryan Switzer did not have the size to consistently win 50/50 deep balls. As such, defenses could also give more attention to UNC’s run game, which saw an odd inconsistency throughout the year.
The offense noticeably stagnated, especially in their three losses against N.C. State, Duke, and Stanford. There were plenty of factors in UNC’s stumble down the stretch, but Mack’s injury was unfortunately one of the most prominent.
Sun Bowl Comeback Bid
The entire season can be summed up by the final offensive play of the season. Mitch Trubisky was on the precipice of another stunning late game rally against the Stanford Cardinal. After taking just 10 plays to march 97 yards in one minute and nine seconds, UNC needed a two point conversion to force overtime.
What happened next is still unknown, likely lost in history where it will collect dust with other “almosts” and “what ifs” in UNC football lore.
Mitch Trubisky lined up directly under center, which he had done approximately six times the entire season. Without a fullback. Without a blocking running back. Without a WR truly split out wide. Without the buffer of a shotgun formation. Mere nanoseconds after receiving the snap, Mitch was running for his life before he was engulfed by Stanford’s Solomon Thomas for a game-sealing sack. He never had time to even wind his arm up and attempt to throw.
That play was a microcosm of the entire season. A blown assignment on the offensive line. Poor (zero) pass protection from the backfield. Mitch being forced to improvise with his legs. An odd looking formation that was unfamiliar to every UNC fan that walks God’s green earth. As such, UNC missed another opportunity to get program defining win, against a Power 5 opponent, on national television.
The Heels lose approximately 99% of their offense from this past season. Their top 3 WRs, top 3 RBs, starting QB, and three starting offensive linemen are all gone. SO, there will be questions and plenty of position battles.
Next season will be a true indicator of how Larry Fedora and his staff have truly done on the recruiting trail. The past few seasons, the Heels have survived with very little depth (except for WR), a lot of luck, and few fortuitous scheduling quirks. Now, Fedora’s recruits have to prove there is little or zero drop off in talent and skills.
Plus, UNC doesn’t play two FCS schools next season. So, that will be nice.