This Saturday, Carolina travels down to Atlanta, the scene of perhaps the best game of 2015. Back then, Carolina was coming off the disappointing loss to South Carolina and played three other weak opponents, so Georgia Tech was going to be the litmus test for the rest of the season. UNC quickly fell behind 21-0, but flipped the script and pulled out the 38-31 win. It set the tone for the rest of 2015 and they rode it all the way to Charlotte. Will that happen again? Here’s three things to watch.
The Triple Option
This offense isn’t new to Carolina’s coaches, or to a good chunk of the defense. This season, it’s running on all cylinders as the Jackets have scored 41, 37, and 35 points in their first three games. Junior QB TaQuon Marshall has multiple seasons of running this offense under his belt, and it shows. He’s averaging about 30 more yards per game running versus passing, and is their leading rusher.
So far, Tech’s rushing attack has racked up 1181 yards in three games. I’ll let you look at that again, 1181. Yes, these yards have been obtained against the likes of Tennessee, Jacksonville State, and Pitt, but that is a ridiculous number for three games. Tech gets in rushing what most teams want in passing, and those numbers grind any defense down to the nubs. If you overplay the rush, one of their receivers will sneak open and Marshall WILL find them for a completion. Try to key in on Marshall, then he just gets it over to KirVonte Benson, himself averaging over 100 yards per game.
The problem with this offense is that it’s specialized and ideally, you want to have time to prepare for it. In that comeback year, Carolina only had to play Delaware the week prior, and last year they had the bye before the 48-20 thrashing in Chapel Hill. This year they have neither, and are coming off a crushing loss to a rival team in Durham.
The good news is that Tech also coughs up the ball, which isn’t a surprise for a team that rushes so much. Only three games in, their offense has fumbled the ball eleven times, losing it six. The defense overall had a good game last weekend, they have to continue with that effort, work to strip the ball, and put last week behind them. As powerful as this offense has been, they have shown signs of momentum-changing miscues, and the defense has to capitalize on it.
UNC’s Tight Ends
If you haven’t already, check out Kyle’s masterful breakdown of the use of Carolina’s two tight ends so far this season. With so many injuries to the receivers, the Tight Ends have quickly become the most experienced hands on the field for Carolina. The problem is, with the issues on the offensive line, they have also become some of the few experienced protectors on the field as well.
Very few teams expect to lose as many folks who can catch passes as Carolina, and it was clear that Fedora favored pass protection with them last weekend to keep Chazz Surratt upright as much as possible. It’s easy to go into a game with Austin Proehl, Toe Groves, and Anthony Ratliff-Williams and decide you can sacrifice catches from the Tight Ends. The practice leading to the Duke game likely emphasized them in protect, and when you have a redshirt freshman who has a history of being skittish, you don’t change plays up on the fly.
This week, expect to see Brandon Fritts and Carl Tucker on the field together a lot more. By mixing them in protect and receiving, the hope is that it will give Surratt an easy option to gain some yards, and keep at least a little heat off Ratliff-Williams. The Yellow Jacket secondary has yet to score an interception, and UNC will hope these two will help keep that streak alive.
Chazz Surratt was the leading rusher last week for Carolina. Unlike Georgia Tech, that means Carolina’s offense was stagnant. It gets worse, because the reason he was the leading rusher was that outstanding 56 yard TD run in the third quarter. Take that away, he was still the 2nd leading rusher, and Jordon Brown would have only out gained him by seven yards.
It feels like a broken record but Carolina has to get some sort of ground attack going in order to take some pressure off of Surratt. The good news is that Tech is currently giving up almost four yards per rush, and have surrendered four rushing TDs in three games. If UNC can keep up that four yard per play average, it should keep the Jacket defense on their toes and help settle Surratt into making some plays.
This is not the week to employ Brown and Carter as extra pass protection, but get Georgia Tech to have to commit to stopping the run on their own. The Flea Flicker last week worked ridiculously well precisely because Duke sold out to stop the ground game. That mindset worked once Carolina had no one left to throw the ball to. The Carolina defense would also appreciate some good runs, as it will keep the offense out on the field a little longer, allowing them to catch their breath. Three and outs will be deadly against a team that could hang a 10 minute drive on you.
Despite the stab in the heart last weekend was, this is a very winnable game. Tennessee has shown themselves to not be an impressive team, as has Pitt, and with a week to scheme for the staff they have, Carolina might just be able to leave Atlanta with their third win in a row over the Jackets.
Assuming, of course, no one else gets hurt.