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UNC vs ECU: Three Things to Watch

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They aren’t rivals, but the Pirates are a must-win game for UNC

NCAA Football: North Carolina at California Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Alright. Time to move on from last week’s debacle. This week the Heels head to Greenville to take on the Pirates of ECU. You may remember the last time these two teams met, even if Larry Fedora has a very selective memory about the incident.

So, what should we all look for this Saturday?

First Down Success

Last week, the average distance to go on third down was 5.7 yards. That doesn’t seem terrible, right? Maybe not, until you realize that in the first half, UNC averaged 3rd and 7.4 yards for its first 8 drives. They did not score any points. Nada. Zero. Blanked. Skunked.

In the second half, the Heels scored 17 points thanks, in part, to their average third down distance of 4.3 yards. That’s better, but still deceiving. The final numbers were skewed by one drive in the fourth quarter when the Heels marched 92 yards. That drive featured five third downs, with an average distance of 2.4 yards. UNC scored a touchdown (and STILL needed to convert twice on fourth down).

The difference? In the first half, UNC averaged 1.4 yards on nine first downs — and that is if you add the five yards on the final play of the first half. That average climbed to 6.4 yards on first down in the second half — and that does NOT count Anthony Ratliff Williams’ 44 yard reception on the second drive of the half, which ultimately led to a field goal.

Defensive Line Depth

Last week the defensive line stepped up in a big way, paving the way for 4 sacks and 10 tackles for loss. Much of last week’s damage was wreaked by defensive end Malik Carney, who led the team with 8 tackles and 2 sacks. The interior trio of defensive tackles overcame the absence of Aaron Crawford, as Jason Strowbridge, Jalen Dalton, and Jeremiah Clarke contributed 8 tackles and 0.5 sacks.

On paper, ECU’s offensive line should provide even less resistance than California. Unfortunately, Malik Carney will begin his suspension that resulted from the shoe selling infractions that were announced last month. With Carney on the sideline, and Crawford’s status still unknown, multiple players will have a chance to see an increase in playing time.

Fifth year senior Tyler Powell will remain an integral “glue” guy on the line, but whether he lines up inside or outside will be a season-long adjustment. Junior Allen Cater, and young talents Xach Gill (RS-FR), Jake Lawler (RS-FR) and Chris Collins (FR) could all see opportunities to make a case for future reps. The Pirates will likely be forced to throw the ball all over the field, and a threatening pass rush will be needed to disrupt timing and decision making.

Dual-Threat QB

I’ll explore this more in-depth next week, but it seems important to mention now. Larry Fedora’s offense is at its best when the quarterback is a threat to run the ball. A blind cyclops could notice the difference last Saturday when Nathan Elliott began tucking the ball and gaining chunks of yards. He finished the day with 10 carries for 56 yards. Not surprisingly, that opened up running and passing lanes. Touchdowns soon followed.

Why the UNC staff waited until the second half to even try this staple of UNC’s system, or if they did try and Elliott didn't execute, is a question we will never have the answer to, but it clearly worked once it started. Just like letting Elliott run last year against Miami, when Elliott rushed 21 times for 79 yards: UNC lost that game by one possession, despite three Elliott INTs. Sound familiar? If anything, Elliott has proven to be mobile, if not agile or explosive.

The offensive line certainly bears some of the blame last week. They got overwhelmed in the first half and struggled to find a rhythm. However, dating back to last year, Nathan Elliott has 7 TDs and 9 INTs against four FBS opponents. Until he proves to be a reliable passer — which is extremely questionable— the coaching staff has to use every weapon in UNC’s arsenal. This includes letting the quarterback be a multi-dimensional threat.