And just like that (how fast it felt can perhaps be debated), another season of UNC football is in the wraps, with another loss to an in-state team. At the end of the 2018 season, Larry Fedora does not have a winning record against any in-state FBS opponent: 3-4 against NCSU, 2-5 against Duke, 1-3 against East Carolina, and 1-1 against Wake Forest. We can talk about what happens next on another day, but for now, let’s take a look at what was perhaps his last game on the sidelines of Kenan Stadium.
Is this grade a little inflated? Yes. Do I care? Not at all. Cade Fortin played the first full game of his career, and what a way to start it despite competition that is allegedly a top-25 team in the country. Fortin’s stats were mediocre, showing up as 19/40 for 276 yards, a touchdown, and an interception, and an additional running touchdown. But to the eye, he was simply incredible. After some early-game jitters led to a couple of overthrows, Fortin dropped dime after dime all over the field, doing particularly well in the intermediate range, only to be let down time and time again by drops from receivers who seemed to have forgotten what catching balls from a P5-caliber quarterback felt like. One of those drops turned into an interception in NCSU territory, and several others killed drives in the first half. If UNC receivers had caught every ball that was on target, the Heels would likely have been up multiple scores by halftime. This isn’t even mentioning the effect that Fortin had on the defense. Every single one of Fortin’s first 5 throws were past the first-down marker, and he continued to be aggressive as the game went on. By the third quarter, NCSU was forced to play off coverage on 3rd and short situations because of the threat of Fortin’s arm, opening up opportunities for the run game and the short passing game that had become ineffective towards the end of Nathan Elliott’s run as UNC’s quarterback. He made a couple of mistakes, including completing a short pass to Beau Corrales with the clock running down on the Heels, but at the end of the day, if I didn’t know better while watching the game, I would have told you that the NFL prospect quarterback in this game was wearing blue, not white. Between Fortin and Ruder, who showed promise in limited action before his own injury, the quarterback position looks to be in good hands for the near future. After the past two seasons, that is a relief, and that sentiment alone earns Fortin an A.
Running Backs: B+
Welcome to the NCAA, Javonte Williams. While he was outshone by his classmate Fortin, the true freshman running back had an excellent performance against a strong defensive front, handling most of the running duties with 16 carries for 83 yards and a touchdown, including several yards created after contact. With Antonio Williams and Michael Carter sidelined, he and Jordon Brown had to carry the load on the ground for the Heels, and with Brown chipping in 9 carries for 43 yards, the backs averaged about 5 yards per carry. It’s a position group that we knew was strong coming into the season, and at the end of the season, the state of the position looks as good as it ever has this year.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends: C-
Cade Fortin suffered at least 6 drops in the first half and probably about 9 for the game. I don’t care if it was raining for most of the game, that’s inexcusable. Enough jokes have already been made about the receivers needing to adjust to Fortin’s arm, but jokes aside, several balls hit the turf that should have been caught and moved the chains. On the bright side, they got open often enough to have balls hit them in the hands repeatedly, and cleaned up their act considerably in the second half. Dazz Newsome was again the star of the corps, with six receptions for 91 yards and a highlight-reel Mossing of an NCSU defender where he tipped the ball to himself as he fell backwards. Beau Corrales also did some good things, including catching the game’s lone passing touchdown on a gorgeous slant-and-go route. Anthony Ratliff-Williams was kept quiet, though, defended tightly for most of the game and catching just 2 of his 5 targets. One of them was a beauty, though, where he adjusted to an underthrown deep ball and gained 51 yards after his defender fell to the turf seemingly without any provocation. Carl Tucker was his usual reliable self at tight end, holding up in pass protection and run blocking and catching a two-point conversion that tied the game and seemed to turn the tide for the Heels... until the game’s end.
Offensive Line: B
A unit that was already down its potential best player in William Sweet suffered a blow when Sweet’s replacement, Jordan Tucker, went down early in the game and did not return. Given that, the offensive line held up very well for the most part, allowing the run game to get going (as mentioned above) and protecting Fortin pretty well outside a few plays. The protection was good enough, in fact, that even some of Fortin’s worse decisions in the pocket weren’t penalized like they could have been because of the line’s ability to stay in front. Charlie Heck was called for a bogus holding penalty on one such occasion, but other examples where the play was officiated correctly exist as well. The NCSU defense finished with just one sack and five tackles for loss, which this line can take some pride in accomplishing. The unit gained cohesion and strength all year until injury started to take over the tail end of the season, and there’s a lot to look forward to with them.
Defensive Line: B-
With two sacks, seven tackles for loss, four quarterback hits, and a forced QB fumble that weirdly didn’t go down as a sack, the Tar Heels’ defensive line was in the NCSU backfield far more than they had any right to be. They made All-ACC quarterback Ryan Finley uncomfortable all day long, to the point where he was outclassed by a true freshman in his first full game. But the run game... whew. You wouldn’t know that NC State fans have been complaining about Reggie Gallaspy the entire year by the way he was rumbling through the defensive line yesterday, to the tune of 27 rushes for 129 yards (4.8 yards per carry) and every one of the Wolfpack’s 5 touchdowns. He’s the kind of guy who needs to be stopped early, and the defensive line just wasn’t able to maintain gap integrity consistently enough to contain him. In the red zone, they were absolutely abysmal, allowing him to score untouched just about every time the Wolfpack got inside the +10 yard line. Special mention goes to Malik Carney, who was an absolute terror in his final game as a Tar Heel. With ten tackles, a sack, a QB hit, and a forced fumble that was recovered by an offensive lineman for no gain, Carney was all over the place near the line of scrimmage. He will be missed.
Cole Holcomb finished his senior season with his best game of the year; though he didn’t have the gaudy tackling numbers he has put up at times this season, he got the defense in position, was always around the play (1.5 tackles for loss), and was excellent in coverage (including a pass breakup). It hasn’t always come together for Holcomb like it did against NCSU, and while the team’s performance against the run could have been better as a whole, Holcomb had some outstanding individual plays, including creating a crucial stop on third and short in the 4th quarter where he didn’t make the tackle, but stopped the runner and destroyed the run blocking of NCSU. Dominique Ross was also fine, racking up 8 tackles, but didn’t really stand out, as just one of those was a solo tackle. His ability to swarm to the ball and finish plays has been great, but he was not a playmaker in this game.
Credit has to go to the line for making Ryan Finley look ordinary, but not all of it. The secondary did an excellent job for most of the game, only allowing a few deep passes to be completed and holding Kelvin Harmon, one of the best receivers in the ACC who had been averaging over 7 catches and over 100 yards per game, to just 3 catches on 6 targets. He gained 54 yards, including a 24-yarder, but that’s a win for a defense. Jokobi Meyers, unfortunately, got that production instead while matched up on safeties, nickel back Trey Morrison, and occasionally Ross, catching 7 of 9 targets for 111 yards. The rest of the State receiving corps, though, was held in check, and Finley’s final statline of 16/28 for 200 yards and an interception is extremely pedestrian. And what an interception it was from Corey Bell, Jr, making a leaping grab on the sidelines to instigate UNC’s first score.
Special Teams: F
This is really where the game was lost. Hunter Lent, who has been disappointing to say the least in the back half of this season, dropped a punt in his own end zone early in the game and was only able to dribble the ball a yard past the line of scrimmage while getting hit as a result of his miscue. That’s right, a one-yard punt was an actual thing that happened. The rest of his game was only okay, unfortunately. The return game, which has been strong for UNC this season, was horrific, making several poor judgements on punts that allowed them to be downed deep in UNC territory and returning kickoffs consistently that had no right to be returned. And Freeman Jones, while he made two early field goals to keep UNC in it while their red zone offense struggled, failed to connect on a 34-yarder in overtime that ultimately doomed the Heels to the loss. At least 13 points were lost today just to bad special teams play, and for a unit that has been one of UNC’s bright spots frequently this season, that’s extremely unfortunate.
I will say, if this was Larry Fedora’s last game as the head coach of the Tar Heels as is being whispered, he didn’t choose the worst note to leave on. The offense, unlocked to at least some degree with a quarterback who could be trusted to hit somewhat tight windows and be accurate downfield, looked dangerously multifaceted and was very effective once everybody got on the same page execution-wise. There weren’t any over-the-top trick plays, the option was mixed in nicely, and Fedora even utilized a QB sneak on 4th and 2 that ended up working! The tight end drag from 3x1 for the two-point conversion was particularly delightful; it’s a play we’ve seen many times from the Carolina Panthers the past few years and it’s nearly always effective. My one complaint is that throwing 40 times and running 35 is a little unfair to a true freshman quarterback, but given the injuries at the running back position and the job that Fortin was doing, I get it. On defense, blitzes were mixed in effectively to maintain pressure from different looks and places on Finley, which was good, but against a team that was as effective running as NC State was, I would have liked to see more 3-linebacker sets with Jonathan Smith, or, if he was unavailable, somebody like freshman Matthew Flint. Some more size and strength in the box couldn’t have hurt. I won’t go too hard at Fedora for the game-ending brawl at the end zone, which seemed to be a case of one guy from each team being immature and the rest of both teams retaliating to protect their brother. Guys on both sides went too far, but the initiation isn’t an indication of team-wide lack of discipline, in my opinion.
And that’s the season! We’ll be back with some reflections on the season writ large in the next week, and will be sure to update you with any news during the offseason. Go Heels.