UNC had probably its best performance of the year so far in their homecoming game against Pittsburgh on Saturday, trading blows with the Panthers for three quarters before pulling away in the fourth. It was a game where you could see, really for the first time this season, signs of growth and cohesion from this team, and as we round into the last month of the schedule, hopefully some of those signs solidify into making this team closer to the kind of team we hoped to see at the beginning of the season. Here are the three that most stuck out to me:
1. Antoine Green’s breakout
In his first four games after coming back from injury, Antoine Green was a very good field-stretcher for the Tar Heels, adding an element to the offense that wasn’t entirely there without him. In those four games, he caught 13 passes for 384 yards and 4 touchdowns, going straight to #1 in the country in yards per reception for players with enough catches to qualify. He also, of course, caught the game-winning touchdown against Duke in the red zone, using physicality to get open and showing great body control to stay in bounds — traits that hadn’t really shown up in his role as a deep threat.
Against Pitt, those traits were on full display all game long as he shouldered the bulk of UNC’s passing offense in the first half from all over the field, getting open and making tough catches at all levels. There was his first touchdown, secured one-handed over the shoulder; there were balls across the middle of the field he secured away from defenders in good coverage; there were more passes to the edges that required skilled negotiation between his feet and the sidelines; Green did it all, to the tune of 10 catches for 180 yards and 2 touchdowns, setting new career highs in catches and yards and tying his best scoring mark. His evolution from a polished deep threat with so-so hands into a genuine all-round weapon has been remarkable, and looks like it can help this offense take yet another step forward — and has certainly set him up to make some money come April.
2. Changes on Defense
The gameplan against Pittsburgh’s offense is pretty obvious: sell out to stop the run and make Kedon Slovis uncomfortable, and then take what he gives you because he’s been folding under pressure all year. That was pretty much exactly what Gene Chizik set out to do from the beginning of the game, though he wasn’t sending the house so much as loading the box and asking his players to contain. It worked in the run game, as ACC-leading rusher Israel Abanikanda had 14 carries for just 48 yards as UNC controlled the line of scrimmage more often than not. He scored twice from close and made UNC’s defense look hapless in doing so, but between the 20’s, he was pretty well bottled up. The problem was in the passing game, where Slovis wasn’t really being pressured early and found receivers, usually Jack Travis, open deep against any cornerback he was up against, without safety help, allowing the Pitt defense to march along — and had even gotten comfortable enough that late pressure wasn’t bothering his ability to make accurate throws, a familiar sight this year for UNC fans.
Things started to change mid-second quarter, however, when the losses of Noah Taylor and Des Evans to injury necessitated a change to a three-down lineman base, beefing up the interior rush and demanding more defenders trying to get to the backfield. The run game got a little better for Pitt, but not enough to really matter (and the Heels made plays when they had to, including bottling him up and causing a fumble on a key third and short), and suddenly Slovis was being pressured earlier, not able to find those big plays and stalling the Pitt offense for every offensive drive after their first of the third quarter. Slovis was 8/18 for 157 yards in the first half, and 6/13 for 79 yards in the second, where the Heels also recorded their only sack of the game. I don’t know if this is a change that’s going to carry past this game, because of the singular disparity between Pitt’s running game and passing game to where there’s a chance a better quarterback finds ways to beat it, but the defense did a lot of good things at the point of attack that I’d love to see replicated as the season goes on, regardless of how we get there.
3. Mitigating the lack of run game
Various people in various places have expressed concern about UNC’s running game, which has shown flashes throughout the season but never really established itself. Caleb Hood’s injury troubles have kept him from being the stalwart he looks like he could be, and everybody else in the lineup is just too inexperienced to be a consistent chain-mover. For whatever reason, Pitt’s defense compounded that by run blitzing constantly — I can only imagine that the thought process of “make Drake Maye beat me” was inspired by the same philosophy that compelled Pat Narduzzi to run off and bad-mouth the offensive coordinator who led Pitt to a conference championship in favor of one who wants to run the ball as much as possible. The UNC run game was stifled; Hood’s only carry lost yardage before he left the game, while Elijah Green and Omarion Hampton combined to take 12 carries 33 yards. Green did have an impressive 2-yard touchdown run, but overall, UNC backs just weren’t finding seams though an aggressive defense.
Phil Longo adjusted quickly, though, scheming up pass plays to the flats early and often to more or less replace the run game. Everybody got a turn: tight ends Kamari Morales and John Copenhaver, Hood, Hampton, and Green out of the backfield, and Josh Downs and Antoine Green as receivers — especially Downs, as the offense manufactured touches for him after he and Maye had missed on a couple of connections. It was a change from the gunslinging attack Longo’s known for through the air and led to a few plays where receivers just couldn’t get needed yards past Pitt’s sure tacklers, but it settled down the quarterback and mitigated Pitt’s aggression, and grew more and more successful over time, just like you want a running game to. There’s more than one way to skin a cat, and it’s pretty cool to see Longo, a playcaller with an earned-but-overblown reputation for rigidity, make a move on the fly like that. I’ll be interested to see how this West Coasty influence stays — or doesn’t — in the offense going forward.