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Duke 42, UNC 35: Position Grades

The offense gets solid marks, the defense... not so much.

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Duke Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

This season really is starting to feel like more of the same. With a couple of exceptions, I’m not sure these grades budged from what I thought they were going to be before the game started. Is that a self-fulfilling prophecy? Maybe. But I just don’t think this team has really progressed, 2 games away from the end of the season. And, like a lot of things about Larry Fedora’s team this year, that is a problem.

Quarterback: C

Nathan Elliott is who he is, and like I’ve said before, it’s unfair to bag on him at this point, when he is the only scholarship-holding option remaining standing at quarterback. In this game, his numbers lined up with his play more than they have in previous weeks, as his line reads 27/41 for 221 yards, a touchdown, and a long of 35 yards, a decent deep ball to Anthony Ratliff-Williams. Add a very nice late touchdown to Thomas Jackson and he made a couple of plays past the line of scrimmage, but his game was mostly more of the 5-yards-and-in variety that have come to define this year’s passing game. He also gets points taken for not keeping on any read options, despite Duke keying completely on the UNC running backs in the second half. He did it abundantly last year, so even though running isn’t a strong suit of his, we know he is capable and has been willing. Maybe it’s insurance with the other 3 quarterbacks out, maybe the coaches just don’t see it as an effective strategy, but you have to keep a defense honest, if not with the passing game, then at least with variety on the ground.

Running backs: A

Have yourself a day, Michael Carter: 18 carries for 148 yards and a score? That’s Doak Walker watchlist material. He was slowed down in the second half, as was the entire UNC offense, but he was one of the primary reasons the game stayed nominally in reach for UNC in the first half. Carter led the team in receptions as well, catching 8 balls for 32 yards on 9 targets as a reliable short-yardage option in the passing game. The other backs didn’t take the day off, either; Jordon Brown and Antonio Williams had 6 carries and averaged a little better than 4 yards a carry apiece, and freshman Javonte Williams had a nice little drive where he followed an 11-yard carry with a 2-yard touchdown, and finished the day with 4 carries for 17 yards.

Receivers: B-

This is a weird category to grade. Receivers made some pretty plays, such as Dazz Newsome’s 86-yard jet sweep, Anthony Ratliff-Williams adjusting to the aforementioned deep ball and also opening the scoring with a 14-yard read-option, and Jackson catching the day’s sole passing touchdown at full stretch. And it can’t go unmentioned that between returns, that touchdown, and a solid day as a receiver, Newsome ended the day with 205 all-purpose yards. Tight ends got involved, too; Carl Tucker moved the chains a few times and Jake Bargas had an excellent day as a blocker. But there were also a lot of miscues. Ratliff-Williams had a bad drop, Newsome had a bad drop that nearly turned into a pick-6, Corrales nearly made a jaw-dropping play on a deep ball but lost it as he tried to control it with one hand, and Bargas brought back a great catch-and-run by Dyami Brown with a pointless unnecessary roughness (it wasn’t shown on broadcast, but reports from the stadium are that it was 15 yards behind the play). Overall, the good outweighed the bad and I don’t think any of the group’s miscues really cost the team (that pick-6 definitely would have qualified), but when there’s that much sloppiness in a position group that should be a strength for the team, it goes down as a pretty mediocre day.

Offensive Line: B+

Some credit for the running backs’ performance has to go to the line, which was able to, at least sporadically, physically dominate an opposing defensive line for one of the first times all year. Michael Carter routinely found big holes in the first half, and even when Duke adjusted to the running looks UNC was serving, the line was able to move the line of scrimmage well enough that every UNC run was a positive play. Out of 37 rushes, not a single one lost yardage. That’s awesome. The line kept Elliott clean as well, and he finished the day not having been sacked a single time. Billy Ross at left guard was a standout, having been inserted into the starting lineup and playing well immediately. That’s a tough ask for any offensive lineman, let alone a young one. A play that deserves special mention is Javonte Williams’ 2-yard rushing touchdown, where the offensive line was able to simply move the line of scrimmage into the end zone and allow Williams in untouched. Against a good, albeit banged up, run defense, it was a sight for sore eyes.

Defensive Line: C

The UNC defensive line was the most inconsistent position group on the day. Besides Daniel Jones, the Duke rushing game had 20 carries for 84 yards, a respectable performance. Jones was sacked 3 times; again, respectable. But we can’t ignore Jones’ career rushing day, and while that’s not completely on the line (and we’ll get to that), they’re not blameless in their inability to contain Jones, either. Tomon Fox and Malik Carney both had good days on the edge; Carney had 8 tackles, including one for loss, recovered a fumble in the secondary, and batted down 2 passes while Fox had half a sack, 2 hurries, and a fumble recovery off a Jalen Dalton strip-sack. For much of the day, though, Jones had tons of time to throw, particularly on third downs. Given the play of the rest of the defense (spoilers!), that just wasn’t a winning formula for this position unit. They can’t help how their teammates played, but they definitely didn’t do enough to mitigate it.

Linebackers: C-

Duke uses their tight ends heavily in the passing game, so this was going to be a big game for the UNC linebackers, especially in the red zone. They... didn’t really come up to the task, as two Duke tight ends caught touchdown passes essentially uncontested, and several of Duke’s third-down conversions went to their tight ends as well. Cole Holcomb was the clean-up man he always has been, leading the team with 12 tackles, and Dominique Ross had 9 tackles and half a sack, but neither was ever really able to make plays so much as finish them. That’s been a theme all season for this group, and without a real sideline-to-sideline player in the group, it doesn’t really seem like they’ll be the type of group to do so. Matthew Flint of the 4.57 100-yard dash and 103 SPARQ rating is waiting in the wings, so maybe the group is in for better days.

Secondary: D-

Myles Dorn saves this group from outright failing with his excellent play in the run game and good over-the-top play, including an interception at the end of the game that wasn’t incredibly meaningful, but did ensure that UNC would have a chance in the last 50-odd seconds to equalize the game. The rest, though... yeesh. Corey Bell, replacing K.J. Sails due to injury at cornerback, was picked on early and often, allowing several deep passes including Duke’s first score, a 50+ yard catch-and-run. Opposite Dorn at safety, J.K. Britt and D.J. Ford were simply atrocious, taking horrendous angles on Daniel Jones on both his long runs to spring him free and failing to stop him from moving the chains on numerous other occasions. Jones was able to routinely pick apart the secondary and find open receivers, completing 31/54 of his passes and having several others bounce off his receivers’ hands (and chests, and facemasks...). The secondary was also called for several pass interference calls, but we won’t dwell on that, as their validity was... questionable, and that’s all I’ll say about that.

Special Teams: D

The wind was swirling in Wallace Wade today, and it showed in both kickers’ play. Hunter Lent netted just 38 yards per punt on 7 attempts, landing just two of them inside the Duke 20, and his kicks looked soft and floaty all game. Freeman Jones had no trouble with extra points, but doinked his only field goal attempt from 49 off the right upright. The kick had plenty of distance, but seemed to swerve off-course at the last possible moment due to a gust of wind. His kickoffs didn’t have their usual solidness, either, again floating more than we’ve seen this season and not carrying like they have been. I’m happy writing it off as a weather thing, though, because the other side’s kickers struggled just as much, if not more, and the two have been very good otherwise this season. The return game didn’t do much to speak of in either direction, positive or negative. Shout-out to Tomon Fox, though, for bursting through the line and blocking a Duke field goal attempt on Duke’s first drive of the second half to maintain the one-possession deficit.

Coaching: D

The coaching in this game was mostly inoffensive, even pleasant at times. That first drive, with speed options to Carter, triple option with ARW at quarterback for the touchdown, and some straight-up man-blocked runs up the middle and off tackle, was everything we’ve wanted to see take over the brunt of the offense for WEEKS now. Tight ends got a reasonable workload, and the ball was spread around remarkably well for a passing game built primarily on predetermined deliveries. But there are two major things that make this grade what it is.

  1. Duke adjusted after halftime to what was working about UNC’s offense, and held them without a first down until there were 10 minutes left in the game. UNC did not, only staving off an insurmountable lead via a blocked field goal and two fumbles, which were good individual plays but not indicative of the scheme or overall play of the defense. Larry Fedora admitted as much, saying of the shift in the game, “They made a few adjustments... We didn’t adjust to it very well. By the time we recognized what they were doing, we were out of a situation where we could be more patient and continue to run the ball.”
  2. Cade Fortin dressed for the game but Elliott started, leading most of us rational people to assume that Fortin was still recovering from the leg injury that had sidelined him earlier this season and was only dressed for emergency purposes. Fedora then put him in to throw the game-ending hail mary (lowercase intentional, because it was from Duke’s 39) to the front of the end zone, which he did after neatly avoiding a sack. If he was healthy enough to do that, why not play him outright, knowing the limitations Elliott brings to the position? And if he truly wasn’t ready for meaningful actions, why add this game to his game count for the season? Fortin has now appeared in three games this season, meaning that he can only play in one of UNC’s remaining two, when he will presumably be healthier, and retain his redshirt. For an all-but-meaningless play, Fedora sacrificed a potential full game of development.

UNC was also called for 10 penalties totalling 115 yards, and while that’s a problem after a relatively clean season to this point, officials were fairly quick with the whistle on both sides, including several questionable DPI calls against UNC, so I won’t really harp on it.

Until next week!