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UNC Football vs Miami: Three Things Learned

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3rd down efficiency. Run defense. Margins of error.

Miami v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Well, that was fun. Is everyone recovered? Go to church to follow through on whatever promises you made to a higher power? Repent for your sins when you gave up on the Heels’ chances after Miami’s last touchdown? Sunday isn’t over yet, so there’s time.

Regardless of your mental state and spiritual affiliations, North Carolina is 2-0 for the first time since 2014. Six ACC teams are undefeated. UNC is one of them. Only two teams own wins over two Power 5 opponents in the first two weeks – North Carolina and Clemson.

So now that we can officially say that UNC is better than most people expected, here are three things we learned from the major win against the Hurricanes. For the sake of avoiding redundancy, we know Sam Howell is good. That won’t be listed below. Unless it is. Let’s see where this takes us.

3rd Down Efficiency

Let’s touch on both the offense and defense for this topic. A little sour and a little sweet.

Last season, UNC’s third-down efficiency on offense was an abysmal 34.5%. In 2017, it was even worse at 30.9%. Those stats put the Heels at 12th and 13th place in the ACC. Not great. Not great at all. This season isn’t much better.

Through two games, North Carolina is 7-26 on third down with an average distance of seven yards to go for a first down. That’s good for a 26.9% success rate. Yikes.

Truthfully, that shouldn’t be a major surprise. South Carolina and Miami are two of the best defenses the Heels’ face all season. This is also a by-product of having a new offensive coordinator and playing a true freshman at quarterback. Cohesion, communication, and comfort are all still being cultivated. No reason to panic (yet), but this deserves watching.

The defense has been the opposite. Through two games, they’ve held the Gamecocks and Hurricanes to a even more dismal 6-23 on third down. That’s 26.0%. To put it another way, North Carolina’s defense is successfully forcing fourth down on 74% of their chances. That’s silly efficiency and a major reason they’ve only allowed 45 points through two games.

Slim Margin of Error

At this very moment in time, this team doesn’t have an identifiable superstar. It isn’t loaded with 2020 NFL draft picks. There are not any former five-star recruits. They lack collective athleticism, explosion, and depth to really scare many teams. There is a reason that they only won five games over the previous two seasons (and injuries were only one of the reasons). They very well could stumble to a 6-6 finish, despite this hot start.

Nonetheless, let’s be clear. This team has the talent to win nine games, contend for the ACC Coastal, and be a dark horse for a Tier 1 bowl. That will only happen if they continue to play as a collective unit that is greater than the sum of its part. For two weeks, they’ve needed every single player to contribute. Consider the following from last night.

  • Tomon Fox had three sacks.
  • Jeremiah Gemmel led the team with 14 tackles.
  • Eight different players caught a pass (if you include Sam Howell’s what-did-I-just-watch reception).
  • Jason Strowbridge had a massive block on a PAT.
  • Chazz Surratt may have saved the game with a shoestring tackle on fourth down.
  • Toe Groves, who has missed two seasons with devastating leg injuries, was the target on the 4th-and-17 pitch-and-catch.
  • Miami’s turnover chain never made an appearance.
  • Nick Polino, Patrice Rene, and Antoine Green all left with injuries, and their backups stepped in with little noticeable drop off.
  • A single delay of game was the only UNC penalty.

All of those events should be celebrated, while also acknowledging that if any of them don’t happen then UNC walks off the field with a heartbreaking loss. This is a team that’s being rebranded with players that were injured or buried on the depth chart. A few are playing in new positions. Almost half have less than two full seasons of experience.

The coaches continue to put the young men in positions to win. The players have responded. So far, that has been good enough. Barely.

Run Defense

South Carolina’s two running backs gained 134 yards on 24 carries, averaging 5.5 yards per carry. Miami’s two-headed backfield was even better at 167 yards on 24 carries. That was good for 6.9 ypc.

UNC’s pass rush (seven sacks in two games) and scheme get all the positive press. Two interceptions last week and avoiding explosive touchdown plays this week have alleviated some of the pressure and ire in the secondary. Allowing 45 points over two games deserves recognition for a program that has struggled for the better part of a decade on that side of the ball.

All of that is well and good, but UNC will need to find a way to clamp down at the line of scrimmage. The team does not have the depth to handle multiple games where the defense is on the field for 35+ minutes (as was the case last night). Giving up 301 yards on 48 carries to opponents main ball carriers, regardless of the talent level, isn’t optimal.

BONUS #1: Mack’s Revenge Tour

Mack Brown is now 2-0 against his former coordinators. Prior to coaching South Carolina, Will Muschamp was Brown’s defensive coordinator at Texas and “head coach in-waiting”. He eventually left Texas the for the Florida head coaching job.

Miami’s head coach, Manny Diaz, was also a defensive coordinator for Brown. After losing to BYU in 2013, Brown fired Diaz.

Oh, that BYU program? It was coached by Bronco Mendenhall. Where is Bronco now? He’s the head coach at Virginia. Mack and Bronco will see each other on November 2nd, in what could be a de-facto ACC Coastal title game.

BONUS #2: Sam Howell: Comeback Kid

In his first two games, Sam Howell has led UNC to consecutive fourth quarter comeback wins. That is more fourth quarter comebacks than UNC has had, combined, in the past two seasons. It is the same amount that Mitch Trubisky had in 2016. Not bad for a true freshman.