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UNC Football: 6 lessons from the first 6 games of the season

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We take a look at what we’ve learned in the first half of the season.

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Georgia Tech Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

After reaching a somewhat surprising 3-3 overall record and 2-1 ACC record, the Heels will take two weeks to regroup, heal up, and prepare to make a run at the Coastal Division title. North Carolina’s so called “bye” week comes smack dab in the middle of their season, and when they return, they’ll face Virginia Tech (away), Duke, Virginia, Pitt (away), Mercer, and NC State (away). With how UNC has played so far, it’s completely comprehensible that they finish 6-0 or 1-5. All options are on the table.

That will all work itself out in the coming weeks. Today, though, we want to look back on the first six weeks and do a deluxe version of our “Three Things Learned”. To keep it all symmetrical, we’ll go over six things that stood out from the first six games. Later this week, we’ll follow it up with six things to watch for the final half. As always, we’ll try to avoid obvious ones like “Mack Brown is good at coaching football”, but sometimes the most obvious observations must be mentioned.

Quarterback of the Future

This one is short and sweet. Barring any untimely injury (knock on wood folks), North Carolina is set at quarterback for at least two more seasons. After an unbelievable run of quarterback stability in TJ Yates, Bryn Renner, Marquise Williams, and then Mitch Trubisky, the Heels struggled to gain any consistency at the position the past two seasons. That is no longer a problem.

Through six games, Howell is 123-195 (63.1%) for 1,544 yards, 15 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions. The yardage and touchdowns lead the conference, and his completions/attempts trail only Jamie Newman at Wake Forest. If not for some untimely drops by his wide receivers, those numbers would be even more impressive. Not bad for a true freshman.

Fourth Quarter Team

Not to rehash the past, but Larry Fedora’s final two years were littered with blown leads and fourth quarter debacles. In 2017 and 2018, 13 of UNC’s 18 losses were by 12 points or fewer. Eight of those were one possession games. This was not a team that was regularly getting blown out, but finishing games was elusive.

This season has been the exact opposite, as UNC has dominated the final period with alarming consistency. Consider the following:

Total Passing: 125-199 (62.8%), 1569 yds, 15 TD, 3 INT
4th Quarter Passing: 7-52 (71.2%), 518 yds, 7 TD, 0 INT
Total Rushing: 247 attempts, 982 yds, 3.97 ypc, 4 TDs
4th Quarter rushing: 70 carries,250 yds, 5.0 ypc, 3 TDs

That kind of play has allowed to UNC outscore opponents 72-31 in the fourth-quarter. Only Clemson outscored them (barely), 7-6. Simply put, UNC has been at their best in the fourth quarter.

3rd Down Success/Failures

We’ve hit this a few times this season, but six games are a large enough sample size.

UNC’s opponents have converted 30 of 79 third-down attempts. That’s a 37.97% success rate and only good enough for 76th in the country. That puts UNC firmly in the middle of the national pack on that metric, but they’re knocking on the door of their best defensive conversion rate in the last decade. Only 2017 (37.43%), and 2012 (36.7%) finished with better numbers.

Meanwhile, the offense has struggled. They’ve only converted 34 of 94 attempts, for a 36.7% conversion rate. That slots in at 94th in the country. Perhaps not surprisingly, that’s still an improvement on the previous two seasons but lags behind every other season from 2009-2016. Struggling to gain solid yardage on first and second down is the main culprit, and the reasons are multifaceted. The good news? The Heels were a combined 18-36 (50%) against Clemson and Georgia Tech, so there is hope for continued improvement.

National Exposure

Mack’s hiring was mostly met with surprise, snickering, or excitement. Some contributors at UNC-centric outlets even openly panned the decision. Whatever side you fell on (and for the record, we thought it was perfect), most people probably didn’t expect UNC to receive as much exposure as they have. I guess we all underestimated Mack’s ability to leverage his old friends at ESPN.

Thanks partly to Mack, an early schedule full of recognizable names, and the ACC Network, the Heels have yet to play a noon game. They’ve regularly been featured on ESPN’s Gameday, whether it was for score predictions, quick spotlight videos about Mack’s return, or postgame analysis and praise. The Clemson game was the second highest rated game of the day. Of course, Mack’s dance moves in Charlotte didn’t exactly keep UNC under the radar.

Plus, his emotional postgame comments after beating South Carolina may still be the highlight of the season.

The number of seasons that UNC has truly been nationally relevant in the past 20 years for football success can be counted on one finger. At just 3-3, this team arguably already has had more positive exposure than the 2015 team.

Youth Movement

For a variety of reasons, this team has leaned hard on youth and inexperience. Injuries, transfers, and schematic fits have led to some interesting lineups. To put it all in perspective, here’s the breakdown of UNC’s roster according to the school’s official roster.

37 upperclassmen (4 graduate students, 12 seniors, 21 juniors)
79 underclassmen (24 sophomores, 19 redshirt freshmen, 36 freshmen)

If that’s not stark enough, consider the following tidbits.

  • Against Appalachian State, eight of UNC’s starters on offense were underclassmen.
  • The secondary currently only has three healthy upperclassmen — Myles Dorn, DJ Ford, and Graham Ecklund. Ford only played 18 snaps against Georgia Tech. Ecklund didn’t step on the field for the defense.
  • The OL has two upperclassmen who have seen action – Charlie Heck and Nick Polino. Heck missed the Appalachian State game and Polino has been out since the Miami game.
  • Only 3 of UNC’s 14 defensive lineman are upperclassman (Aaron Crawford, Jason Strowbridge, Nolan DeFranco)

Top Shelf Coordinators

Simply put, Jay Bateman and Phil Longo were the perfect hires for UNC football. Plenty has been, and will continue to be, written about Bateman’s schemes. Despite the reliance on youth and a comically depleted secondary, UNC is giving up just 24.3 points per game. That’s UNC’s lowest scoring defense average since 2010. In the previous two seasons (18 games), North Carolina held a team to 25 or fewer points just six times. This season alone, UNC has held five opponents to that threshold.

They’re doing it despite giving up 5.74 yards per play, which is 12th in the ACC and only better than the 2014, 2017, and 2018 seasons. However, they’re only giving up 371.8 yards per game, good for 7th in the conference. Each week, the schemes are getting more complex, the team is finding a comfort level, and the hardest part of the schedule is behind them. There’s reason to expect even more success.

That defensive success has been helped in part by Longo’s ability to manage the game from the sideline. Sure, every OC receives criticism and there have been some issues with clock management and a seeming reluctance to stick to the running game. It’s always easy to second-guess play calls when they don’t work, and UNC fans still have nightmares from the previous regime. Honestly, though, much of the discussion surrounding Longo’s low-scoring “Air Raid” is quibbling.

Where Longo’s real impact has been is slowly bringing the offense along (because of, you know, the youth), mitigating risky situations (6 turnovers through 6 games), and changing his game plan from week to week based on the opponent. This shows up most with UNC’s average time of possession of 31:09, which is the highest average since 2010. Fully acknowledging ToP can be a deceiving metric, Longo’s willingness to mix up tempos depending on opponent and game situation has helped UNC maintain control for longer periods of time.

Even within the same game, UNC will slow down or speed up their drives to keep the defense guessing. The tempo against Clemson was also noticeably slower than against Appalachian State. (That must explain why fewer Clemson players suffered from cramps, right?) This theoretically gives the already thin defense time to rest, while slowly wearing down the opponent. Judging by the fourth quarter successes and UNC’s scoring defense metrics, there may something to that logic.

So that’s that. Six lessons from six games. As always, let me know where I’m wrong. Later this week we’ll share our six things to watch for the final half of the season.