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UNC 37, Syracuse 40: Three Things Learned

Another week, another frustrating loss

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to Groundhog Day. Another week. Another soul-shattering loss.

Other than (and potentially including) the obvious, let’s dive into the trio of things that we learned.

They don’t know how to win

Winning, like losing, is a habit. If you don’t do it very often, it’s easy to forget how to perform. That’s what we have witnessed for two weeks. The Heels continue to find creative ways to leave the field with a loss.

Whether it’s poor execution, turnovers, missed kicks, or letting receivers behind the entire secondary, the moment continues to be too big for the Heels. The same could be said for the coaching. There isn’t a succinct explanation that can solve the problem. Winning is the only cure.

The effort has been visible and they remain competitive. Players are saying the right things after games. They just have no idea how to find a W and it’s showing up in key moments. It’s rough to watch.

UNC can compete with Nathan Elliott at QB

This might be hard to believe. I get it. I can’t believe I’m typing it. Here it goes.

Against the majority of UNC’s opponents, the junior quarterback is good enough to keep North Carolina competitive.

Take that as praise or criticism as you see fit, but results speak for themselves. Going back to the win against Pittsburgh, Elliott has played well enough to have UNC sitting at 3-1 in the ACC. For two weeks in a row, the UNC offense has gained over 500 yards, with Elliott completing 45 of 67 attempts for 468 yards and 3 TDs. He is limited, but Elliott deserves praise for knowing those limits and playing within them.

The downside, of course, is that Elliott is not going to win any games like previous Tar Heel QBs. Thus, UNC is sitting at 1-3 in conference play. I’m not sure that’s necessarily a criticism though. Elliott’s skillset is largely what fans expected heading into this season. We would all prefer more arm strength and accuracy past 7-yard curl routes, but that’s just not happening. He needs help from the defense, special teams, skill positions, and coaching staff. For two weeks in a row, at least one of those four other groups have failed to deliver.

The OC-by-committee is a failure

Regardless of the spin the coaching staff tries to put on its play-calling set-up, the current format is failing. A real, live, singular offensive coordinator is needed for planning, execution, and accountability. Sometimes the answer is more than “players need to execute.” Coaches have to put players in position to execute those plays. They did not do that on Saturday.

Most of the debate has revolved around the Wildcat pass attempt by Anthony Ratliff-Williams. Joe supported it in this morning’s Tar Heel Hangover, and I mentioned in the Winners and Losers of the week. Your mind is likely made up on whether it was the correct or incorrect play. (I’m fully on board with the idea that it was a “good” call, but was completely stupid, unnecessary, and ultimately avoidable. Therefore, it was a “bad” call).

However, there were multiple other situations throughout the game that should have made that decision irrelevant. Consider the following.

  • Nathan Elliott running a read-option up the gut, from the shotgun on 4th-and-1... The Heels had already gone under center three times on earlier drives to convert short yardage situations. Instead, this was at turnover on downs.
  • The second drive of the first half saw the Heels backed up at 2nd and 14. Instead of sticking to short passes and runs to make a manageable 3rd down, Elliott heaves it incomplete down the sideline. A handoff on 3rd and 14 leads to a punt.
  • On the second to last drive of the first half, there are three consecutive screens/swings behind the line of scrimmage. Any momentum from earlier drives were gone. Syracuse scored 10 points in the final three minutes after this 3-and-out.
  • The Beau Corrales jump pass/interception. I can’t write what I want to write and keep this family-friendly, so I’ll just say this: The Heels had found some early success in the 2nd half on the ground. This was not the time to abandon what was working (again) and get cute.
  • On the 2nd-and-5 play just prior to the Wildcat, instead of going back to Antonio Williams, who had just gained 5 yards on first down, the staff decided to let Nathan Elliott run the ball up the middle. From the shotgun. Again. Surprisingly, like the previous attempts throughout the afternoon, this failed.*

*Not surprisingly.

  • The final drive in regulation. Fedora essentially admitted after the game that they didn’t really have a plan in place. With the ball at the Syracuse 39 yard line, the Heels had just under a minute to get 9 yards for a manageable field goal attempt. Instead, three incompletions were wrapped around one Nathan Elliott run up the middle (again!). The entire fiasco was a clown show.

As singular plays, most of these are defensible or easy to understand. In totality, though, it’s so ill-conceived that one could argue the coaching staff appears to make many play calls as a singular entity with zero regard for overall game situation and awareness.

As an entire body of work, however, a frustrating scenario begins (continues?) to emerge. Whoever was calling the plays, consistently abandoned what had been working in an effort to outsmart and/or “surprise” the opposition. This may surprise some people, but sometimes the answer is the most obvious.

The players deserve more than what they were given on Saturday.