At the start of yesterday’s game against Pitt, we saw what looked like a rejuvenated UNC team that was tired of being embarrassed at every turn. The offense, which has been the worst side of the ball to touch the field this year, perhaps was the best side of the ball in this game. The defense managed to recover after struggling mightily near the end of the second quarter, and special teams had some good moments of their own. All and all, this was the game that the Heels needed after starting the season 0-2.
With that said, let’s take a look at each position and see how they did.
If anybody happened to miss yesterday’s game, this grade probably is a bit of a surprise. Prior to the Pitt game, Nathan Elliott had taken more heat for his performances against Cal and ECU than a furnace lit on fire deep inside of a volcano. While it was deserved for how he performed in those games, he deserves just as much praise for his performance against Pitt.
Nathan Elliott finished the game completing 22-31 passes for 313 yards, two touchdowns, and zero interceptions. UNC had a very good game plan going into today’s game, and Elliott did everything that he was asked to do very well. While there’s definitely reasons as to why it may have been easier for Elliott today external from himself, which we will get into when looking at other positions, he in general just looked more comfortable executing today. His passes were accurate, he made sound decisions in ball distribution, and we never got the feeling that he was trying to force plays.
The performance that Elliott had today may have been needed, as Chazz Surratt is expected to make his return against Miami. It remains to be seen if yesterday’s performance was enough to save his starting job, and unless Fedora has adopted a brand-new philosophy in regards to transparency, we may not know until kickoff time Thursday. Miami will be a tough matchup on matter who plays, so let’s just hope each quarterback is prepared for a battle.
Running backs: A
Antonio Williams has all of the sudden become the most important player for UNC if they have any chance of fixing this season. He told reporters after the game that he felt like he played soft against Cal, and that he “ran angry” against ECU before being ejected. Well, he ran angry again yesterday, and this time to a tune of 114 yards off of 16 carries.
If there was one thing that helped Nathan Elliott out against Pitt, it was the fact that Antonio Williams, Michael Carter, and Jordon Brown were able to keep the defense honest all day. Williams looked every bit like an Ohio State transfer, showing the speed, strength, and awareness to make several big plays throughout the day. Seeing him leap over the goal line for a touchdown was a thing of beauty, and we can only hope that we get to see more of this throughout the rest of the season.
Larry Fedora, if you are listening, do not ignore the run with this man on your roster. You will regret it big time.
Wide Receivers: A-
As mentioned above, there were external reasons as to why Nathan Elliott had such a good game. One of those reasons has to do with the exceptional job that the wide receivers did, with Dazz Newsome and Anthony Ratliff-Williams combining for 194 yards. Dyami Brown also had a solid outing, pulling down 4 catches for 32 yards and one touchdown.
One of the things that the receivers did so well against Pitt is that they contested passes in a way that bailed Elliott out on a couple of occasions. One good example is a pass that Elliott threw to Ratliff-Williams in the corner that very much should’ve been intercepted, but he reached over the top of the receiver and snatched the ball away. The receivers also seemed to get really good separation from Pitt’s secondary, and Elliott found himself finding receivers either wide open or in single coverage. This is good decision making on Elliott’s part, sure, but the receivers have to create that scenario and they did a great job.
Offensive Line: A+
Last but not least, the success that UNC had yesterday heavily revolves around the offensive line. They managed to create a lot of good holes for the running backs, and only allowed Elliott to get sacked one time. In general, Elliott didn’t feel nearly the amount of pressure that he did in the previous two games, and should they keep this up it will be a game-changer. Miami will be quite the test for them, and if they can come even close to replicating the success they had yesterday, then we can expect the offense to perhaps look back at the first two games at the end the year as if it were a bad dream and nothing more.
Defensive Line: C+
Tomon Fox came out of the gate strong, getting a big sack to end Pitt’s first drive of the game. That play essentially set the tone for what turned out to be a rough day for Kenny Pickett. The Heels recorded 3 sacks for the game, but they got a lot of good pressure on Pickett throughout the contest.
So then why Just a C+? Well, the other job of the defensive line is to help stop the run, and Pitt ran for 228 yards and three touchdowns. This isn’t all their fault, of course, which is why...
Cole Holcomb had the time of his life against the Panthers, racking up 12 tackles, 10 solo tackles, one sack, and two tackles for loss. His one sack was a thing of beauty, as he got through Pitt’s offensive line untouched, threw the blocker behind the line out of the way, and laid the hammer down on Pickett.
However, not everything was sunshine and rainbows. The Panthers managed to do a lot of damage in the ground game, and while Darrin Hall’s 65-yard run had a lot to do with that, there’s not many excuses that can be made for allowing those types of explosive plays. The defense as a unit fell asleep during the second quarter, and it was apparent that they had taken in a very heated motivational speech prior to entering the second half. Hopefully this isn’t something that’s needed on a consistent basis.
It has to be difficult to grade a position that didn’t see as much action as the other parts of the defense, but we’ll try anyway. UNC’s secondary didn’t allow Pitt to do nearly as much as they could’ve, whether that was via their efforts or because Pickett made some bad throws. Truthfully, they have to be given a B- due to the fact that they are part of the unit that fell asleep behind the wheel in the second quarter. However, they didn’t do anything to really hurt UNC either, and so that in and of itself is commendable.
Positive? Freeman Jones recovered a Pitt fumble and it was awesome. Negative? Freeman Jones actually missed a 38-yard kick. Consensus? Freeman Jones is still probably the best player on UNC, though Antonio Williams may make a solid case if he repeats his performance against Miami and/or Virginia Tech.
Give Larry Fedora credit where credit is due: despite things getting uncomfortably close in the final seconds of the game, the game plan that was drawn up for this one worked out pretty well. More importantly than that, Fedora found a way to get all of his guys to not give up on the season and win their first Power Five conference win since...well....Pitt.
Knowing how Fedora works, I am sure that aside from natural disaster concerns he spent many sleepless nights trying to figure out how to get his team on the right track after being embarrassed by ECU. While we don’t exactly know the temperature of the seat that he is sitting on right now as far as Bubba Cunningham is concerned, this win at least guarantees that it doesn’t get any warmer for the next few days.
One thing that has been mentioned that seems to have some truth to it is being able to establish the run. While this is an ironic concept coming from a Larry Fedora team, it really did seem like establishing the run helped the offense out a ton. 38 points a good day for a lot of teams around the country, and so if the defense can regain some footing Fedora may find himself sleeping a little better at night.
Overall, this was a needed win. It wasn’t a good win, nor was it a bad win, but it was a win and that’s all that matters. Bring on Miami.