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UNC Football vs. Miami: Three Things Learned

At this point in the season, moral victories are as good as real ones.

Miami v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Going into Saturday, THB’s own Jake Lawrence laid out a case where Carolina could hang with Miami. Jake is an optimist by nature, and even he didn’t seem like he thought Carolina had much of a chance. Still, he ended the preview with this:

“Never give up. Never Surrender.”

Carolina, indeed, never gave up. They were facing a team looking for revenge after a crushing loss last year. The Heels were down to their third quarterback, had seventeen out for the season plus five more missing for the game. Still, Carolina was one drive away from upsetting a Miami Hurricanes team that has eyes on the ACC Championship and possibly the College Football Playoffs.

Unfortunately, in a script that has been very familiar in Kenan this year, Carolina couldn’t finish the job and drops to 1-8 on the year. As the Tar Heels head into their off week, let’s see what we learned from the game against Mimai.

The defense is the better than their numbers

Miami gained 415 yards on offense, 356 of those through the air. The defense surrendered a 51 yard pass and a 78 yard pass for touchdowns, plus another 49 yard pass that set up the third touchdown. Quite simply, if you take away any one of those catastrophic plays, Carolina wins. Someone who isn’t watching the game could easily blame the defense for the loss.

I think we all know differently. Carolina forced Miami to be one-dimensional, holding a potent rushing attack to 59 yards on 32 attempts.

I’m going to type that again: the Carolina defense held a team to 59 yards rushing on 32 attempts. That’s 1.8 yards per rushing attempt. Anyone else here think you’d ever read that for a team coached by Fedora?

Let’s dig a little deeper: take away those three long passes and you have a defense that only gave up 178 yards in the air. Even with those three bombs, Miami was 17-41 passing the ball. The defense also recovered both an interception and a fumble. Put simply: Carolina has no shot in this game if not for the work done on defense,

The defense benefited from the offense keeping the ball longer than they had the last few weeks, which was golden for a unit missing several key players. After a shaky start, this Carolina defense may finally be what we all hoped they would be. Their showing yesterday portends a bright future in Chapel Hill.

Nathan Elliott should have had his chance earlier

This is not to say that Elliott is Carolina’s quarterback of the future, far from it. It is difficult to deny, however, that receivers were making plays for Elliott that they hadn’t for the other two signal callers. There could be a lot of reasons for this, but whatever they are, the offense had a better flow to it, at least for parts of the game.

With Harris out for the game, Elliott likely got his first chance to take snaps with the first team offense all season, allowing him to be an active participant in prepping for the game. When Surratt was laid out by a cheap hit from the Canes, he was ready. Elliot provided something that Carolina fans hadn’t seen much of this season: a quarterback who went through his progressions, only ran when there was no other choice, or when it was designed, and hit open targets. For the first time in ages, Carolina won the Time of Possession battle, which allowed the aforementioned defense to catch their breath and make plays.

Elliott made plenty of mistakes, sailing some passes and getting picked off three times. There was a point in the second half where you wondered if Surratt would see the field again as the Hurricanes appeared to adjust to him. It’s clear, though, that Elliot was making a case to get more time under center for the rest of the season.

When you think about the quarterback situation going into 2017, it makes sense how it all shook out. You aren’t going to recruit a graduate transfer to come to your school and then immediately bench him for the rest of the year. Surratt is a different style of quarterback so if you go with Harris, you have to go with Surratt as your backup.

The question, though, is at what point should you have realized Harris wasn’t the answer and elevated Elliott to backup Surratt? As has been noted, Carolina’s offensive concerns go beyond the quarterback, and how ineffective Harris/Surratt have been have just as much to do with the injuries on the line and receiver. It’s still a big “what if” as the rest of the season finishes up.

Either way, the last three games are now an audition for the starting job in 2018, and Elliot made a great case Saturday.

The team hasn’t given up on 2017

You can question the coaching decisions (why aren’t you doing a QB sneak on 2nd and a foot?), but at this point in the season, what is more important is whether or not the team wants to compete. Jake and Jay discussed this on the podcast yesterday, that this is the point in the year where locker room fights and other forms of dissension start to leak out.

Not only has the locker room stayed air tight, but this football team put last weekend’s whipping behind them and delivered a near-upset performance prior to a bye week. That alone is remarkable, and is a huge positive. Remember, in 2014 these things started leak out as the last of the Davis regime graduated and the first of the Fedora class started to take real control. If any team has a reason to be frustrated, it’s this one, but they soldier on to play another day.

It’s a good note to go into the bye week on. A winnable game to learn from, an extra week to get healthy, and a final three games that can start to build momentum for next season. The schedule also lends itself well for some good performances: a bye week before a Thursday in Pittsburgh, the extra two days off before facing WCU, and then the rivalry game in Raleigh...which may be heated.

The way Carolina came out to play yesterday shows every desire by this team to end 2017 on a high note, which says something about those who can still suit up. It’s not only valuable experience going into spring, it also sends a message to those who are being recruited by Fedora. These kids still want to play for him, so will you.