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UNC at Pittsburgh: Three Things Learned

Targeting, Red Zone “success”, and Antonio Williams

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Another week. Another close game. All this football season has been missing is Bill Murray from Groundhog Day. As they have five other times this season, UNC walked off the field with a heartbreaking loss. After winning the first two games of the season with come-from-behind fourth-quarter drives, the Heels have lost six one-possession games.

Instead of dwelling on that frustration, let’s try and find three lessons. Here we go.

Get Rid of Targeting

The outcome of the game did not hinge on two targeting calls in the first half, but they were probably the best microcosm of the comedy that is ACC referees. In the first quarter, Pittsburgh defensive end Amir Watts dove head first at Beau Corrales, after coiling his body and unleashing a hit. After the whistle had blown. While Corrales was defenseless and on the ground. Watts was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct and the play was reviewed for targeting.

Targeting was overturned. Have a look for yourself.

Meanwhile, in the second quarter, Damar Hamlin was also flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct and targeting. On that play, he launched head/arms first toward Dazz Newsome, at full speed, to make a play on a ball that arrived milliseconds before Hamlin made contact with Newsome. Hamlin even had his arms outstretched, hoping that the ball would slip past Newsome. Hamlin’s eyes stayed up until the last second, when he realized a collision was imminent. There was no malicious intent. He didn’t purposefully lead with his head to make a hit. It was a legit football play, albeit helmet-to-helmet. That targeting call was upheld, and Hamlin was ejected. Here’s a tweet with multiple angles.

It would be easy to lay this at the feet of the officiating crew (who was absolutely atrocious for both teams last night), but this is bigger than another ACC embarrassment on national television. The creation of this abysmal rule was well-intended. Player safety is important, but accidents will happen when oversized humans run full speed at each other. The rule was even amended this season to allow for review, specifically to ensure that players were not ejected for normal football plays or non-malicious hits. Yet, even with that review, somehow Watts’ play wasn’t considered to have met the standard for targeting and Hamlin’s was.

At this point, just get rid of the rule and keep helmet-to-helmet hits as a mandatory 15-yard penalty. Or scale the penatly yardage to the severity/maliciousness of the hit. Or make hits after the whistle a 30-yard penalty. Almost literally anything else would be an improvement.

While we’re at it, suspend last night’s crew for the remainder of the season and make them copy the rulebook by hand in the offseason.

Red Zone Play Calling. Again.

Until this gets fixed, this should be a weekly segment. UNC made four more trips to the red zone last night. They walked away with one touchdown. For the season, they have scored 19 touchdowns in 39 trips inside the 20. That’s good for a 48.7% touchdown rate, which slots UNC at 112th in the country. There are 130 FBS football programs.

Pick your culprit. A young offensive line that’s struggling to run block or pass protect on a condensed field. Sam Howell making incorrect reads and forcing the issue. Dropped passes. Opponent defenses that have been stouter than originally anticipated. Of course, the play calls are always a topic of conversation (four corner fades on the final two drives?).

It’s likely a mix of all of those deficiencies. Some of those excuses (or reasons) should get better next year. More experience, chemistry, and development will evolve in the offseason. But, as we mentioned two weeks ago, Longo’s offense finished 107th, 93rd, and 122nd in the same metric when he was at Mississippi. There, he had a more mobile quarterback and four wide receivers who were NFL draft picks.

Sometimes the correct answers are the most obvious. Longo has done a phenomenal job this season, but this is one aspect of the offense that has to get noticeably better next season.

Antonio Williams

Prior to the season much was made of the backfield triumvirate of Javonte Williams, Antonio Williams, and Michael Carter. For much of the season though, Antonio Williams has been on the outside looking in. Some games he hasn’t even registered a carry.

That changed last night, when he gained 107 yards on 12 carries. Even if you remove a 59-yard rumble, he still averaged a respectable 4.3 yards per carry against a Pitt defense that entered the night only allowing 2.63 ypc. Those efforts helped open passing lanes, especially in the fourth quarter. On a night that saw Michael Carter largely bottled up and Javonte Williams still nursing a sprained ankle, the elder Williams provided a much needed spark.

With at least two games remaining in the season, an additional offensive weapon may be crucial as the defense continues to get worn down and depleted. Williams also likely wants to play a key role in getting UNC to the program’s first bowl game since 2016. Hopefully he gets a few more opportunities over the next two weeks.