For the first time since the 2016 Sun Bowl, North Carolina will play in a postseason football game. After finishing off NC State in dominating fashion, the Heels reached 6-6 finishing their season the same way they started it: with consecutive victories.
The season was a rollercoaster. Nine of their 12 games were decided by one possession. Almost their entire defensive secondary was lost to injury at one point or another. A true freshman quarterback broke single-season records. An old friend-turned-enemy returned to the sideline and won our hearts with his charm and dance moves. A former QB developed into an All-ACC caliber linebacker. Along the way, the team exorcised a plethora of demons.
There will be plenty of time for additional reflections, but with one game remaining, let’s look back on last night’s good old-fashioned ass-whooping. Here are three things we learned in the cathartic win.
Jay Bateman has received plenty of deserved praise for overhauling the defense. Sure, there were some quibbles along the way, but he papered together a bowl-bound defense despite losing defensive backs/safeties Patrice Rene, Myles Wolfolk, and Cam’Ron Kelly for the season, and Storm Duck and Trey Morrison for extended periods of time.
He did the same with a linebacker corps that saw former QB Chazz Surratt develop into their leading tackler, sophomore Jeremiah Gemmell turn into their second leading tackler, and senior Dom Ross play almost every position on the field. (I’m only slightly exaggerating). Meanwhile. there was so little depth on the defensive line that senior Aaron Crawford and Jason Strowbridge regularly played 60+ snaps a game.
Folks, there was a reason they got roasted against Pitt and UVA. These fellas were tired.
Yet, despite those personnel challenges, they still held the Wolfpack to just 10 points. I get it. NCSU’s offense was putrid this year. They started three different quarterbacks, lost WRs to injury, and never had a running game. None of that matters. 10 points is 10 points, and NC State is still a Power Five opponent.
State was the eighth team to score fewer than 26 points this season against UNC. That’s 75% of UNC’s opponents who were held to 25 points or less. For perspective, UNC only accomplished that 12 times in the previous three seasons — total.
That effort also dropped opponent’s scoring average to 24.6 points per game. Only the 2010 team (23.2 ppg) and the 2015 and 2013 teams (24.5 ppg) were lower over the past decade. Bateman did this with largely the same roster that gave up 34.5 points per game last season.
Bateman’s efforts were also finally rewarded with play-changing turnovers. Three interceptions and fumble recovery helped fuel UNC’s 35 unanswered points. Three of those four turnovers were forced by underclassmen. If they can find adequate replacements for Crawford and Strowbridge on the interior of the defensive line, the future is bright for UNC’s defense.
Signs of life in the red zone
This site has been critical of the red zone execution. Honestly, we’ve probably held back our thoughts of what can only be described as dismal attempts to find the end zone when the Heels were inside the 20. After the first half, it looked like this was going to be another one of those games. Twice the Heels marched inside the 10 yard line in the first half. Both times they settled for field goals. Our internal staff chat on Slack was highly entertaining, despondent, and not family friendly.
Thank goodness for the second half. Three of UNC’s five second-half touchdown came from inside the red zone.
A pass to Javonte Williams out of the backfield resulted in an 11-yard catch and run touchdown was good for UNC’s second TD of the night. That was followed minutes later by another Javonte Williams TD, this time a six yard rush. Back-to-back red zone touchdowns may have seemed like sorcery, but it was really just solid execution, a deflated NC State defense, and (finally!) excellent play-calling. UNC wasn’t done though!
After a 52-yard pass down the sideline to Dyami Brown, UNC returned to their successful red zone ways with a 13-yard pass to Dazz Newsome. That pass was set up with a beautiful fake to Williams on a swing route, leaving just enough of a window to Newsome in the back of the end zone.
Overall, it was an encouraging performance for a team that has struggled inside the 20.
Last offseason, UNC switched from natural grass to turf. It was a much debated topic, but Mack was determined to make the change. Among the reasons was that turf is not affected by poor weather like natural grass is. A side effect of that decision was that players usually can wear the same equipment, from week to week, on turf. For example, cleats rarely have to change from week to week.
Cleats are made for all kinds of conditions. Different lengths of spikes are made for different surfaces, and every school maintains their natural grass fields slightly differently from each other. Grass can be cut to different lengths. Drainage systems can mitigate the impact of heavy rainfall. Some dirt/soil is softer than others, requiring longer spikes for better traction. Hard ground spikes. Soft ground spikes. You get the idea.
Which is why it was so laughable and frustrating to watch UNC struggle to gain traction on the Carter-Finley field in the first-half. A steady rain made the surface slick, and regular gameday maintenance meant the grass was already trimmed. Short, wet, slick grass should require a specific kind of cleat. According to the play-by-play announcers, though, some North Carolina players opted to wear their regular cleats citing “comfort” issues.
Hey. I get it. You look good, you feel good. You feel good, you play good. Comfort and familiarity matter. However, based on both the defense and offensive performances in the second half, I can only speculate that quite a few Tar Heels made an equipment change at halftime.
Hopefully next time an experienced coaching staff can be a little more forceful on the impressionable minds of 18-22 year olds.