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UNC 42, Pitt 24: Position Grades

On Halloween, the news is more treat than trick

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Happy Halloween, everybody! I hope you gorge yourselves on candy to your hearts’ content, that the children in your lives are happy to be dressed up and exploring their neighborhoods, and that you’ve found a spooky movie to sit back and watch, whether it’s a slasher, a thriller, a thinker, or camp, a new experience or an old favorite.

As my treat to you, let’s evaluate UNC’s performances up and down the roster on Saturday, one of UNC’s most satisfying games of the past decade against an out-of-state opponent. As you’d expect, there’s not going to be a ton of complaining here. Without further ado, let’s get into it:

Quarterback: A+

I can only say so much about Drake Maye each week before getting redundant, and I fear I already have. In a game where the opposing defense was committed to stopping the run, Maye welcomed the challenge, setting career highs in attempts and completions thanks in large part to a steady diet of passes to the flat to replace the run. He was borderline perfect throughout the night and got better as the game went on, finishing with a line of 34/44 for 388 yards and 5 touchdowns, finding 10 receivers in the process. I can probably count on one hand the number of college quarterbacks we’ve seen with his level of post-snap processing since Andrew Luck; the way he moves through his reads and gets set to throw when he finds the right one is just special. Sure, I can nitpick his game — he ran himself into one of his two sacks on the day when he bailed out of a clean pocket after seeing a hole that a Pitt lineman quickly closed, and especially in the first half, probably tucked the ball too early a few times against a defensive front that wasn’t going to let him out-athlete them like he has less talented opponents throughout the season. He also wasn’t quite on the same page as Josh Downs for much of the game, with most of his incompletions headed Downs’ way and probably more on him than the receiver. But nearly every time, he’d make up for one of those decisions by moving the chains, and at the end of the day, he’s playing at as high a level you could possibly expect. Maybe higher.

Running Backs: B

I mentioned that the Pittsburgh defensive gameplan was to stop the run at all costs. Fortunately, Phil Longo realized that early and didn’t have his backs continually try to smash through a brick wall, meaning that Caleb Hood, Elijah Green, and Omarion Hampton had other jobs to do — catch the ball out of the backfield and pass protect, mostly. All three were up to the task. They routinely identified free rushers on blitz pickup and didn’t get overwhelmed like all three have at times this season, representing a real step forward. All of them made positive plays in the passing game, especially Hampton, who’s showing some really impressive acceleration and contact balance out on the edge. And when a strong run was needed from the two-yard line, Green delivered, bouncing off contact, keeping his knees off the ground with his free hand, and driving past the goal line for the Heels’ go-ahead touchdown.

The big negative on the day was an Omarion Hampton fumble that fortunately didn’t amount to anything, as Corey Gaynor pounced on the loose ball before anybody else knew where it was. Hampton didn’t receive any more carries on the day, and with a volatile running backs rotation, it’ll be interesting to see if that carries into how he’s used going forwards. George Pettaway also got into the game for a designed pass play to him out of the backfield, which came off his fingertips in a play that looked like it hadn’t been practiced enough for the true freshman to really know where the ball was going to be delivered. Again, we’ll see if and how that affects his usage in the last few games of the season.

Receivers: A

While Maye found 10 different receivers on the day, Josh Downs and Antoine Green did most of the damage. Twenty-one of Maye’s 33 completions went to the duo, amounting to 282 yards and four scores as the Pittsburgh secondary just couldn’t handle them. Downs was beaten a couple of times on screens and once on his patented pivot route at the goal line that the defensive back was expecting and broke early on, but after halftime, Phil Longo schemed a few more manufactured touches for him to get in space and it paid off, as he started running his routes with renewed confidence and collected a defensive back’s ankles for his second touchdown of the day. For Green’s part, he showed off an arsenal of routes that hadn’t really been part of his gameday repertoire before and did damage at all levels of the field, catching nearly everything thrown to him with strong hands and great body control. Perhaps no catch in the game was more impressive than his first touchdown, which he casually secured with his right arm as he was running out of the back corner of the end zone and maintained control without needing to shift the ball at all. All the other ballcatchers did their parts well. Kobe Paysour came in for a goal-line package and snared a tunnel screen in condensed space to score; Gavin Blackwell got open down the deep middle of the field on a third-and-long to move the chains, and J.J. Jones continues to impress with his secure hands and YAC ability, this time turning a quick out into a 12-yard gain that would be followed by Elijah Green’s touchdown. Kamari Morales also showed off some skill on a sideline catch late in the game. As I’ve said before, Maye’s receivers, as thin a group as they might be, have been doing everything he needs and more for him to be as good as he’s been.

Offensive Line: B

This isn’t yet a unit that can impose its will in the ground game, so when a good defensive front decides it’s going to shut down the run, they’re probably going to succeed. Like I mentioned in the running backs’ section, though, that didn’t matter for very long, because of an offensive adjustment that neutralized run blitzes and allowed this unit to focus on doing what it does best: pass protection. Maye was sacked twice (one of them was on him, as mentioned) and hurried three times, very solid numbers for a 44-dropback day. They also, especially later in the game, started doing really well to open up the QB draw-option holes that Longo’s been building into passing playcalls the past couple of years, giving their quarterback a few free yards if he wanted to take them. The return of William Barnes was evident, as the right side of the line was much more stable than it was two weeks ago, and Corey Gaynor of course saved a play from turning ugly when he jumped on the Hampton fumble.

Defensive Line: B+

Give this group credit: their primary, secondary, and tertiary job was to limit Israel Abanikanda, and for most of the game, they did exactly that. They either won or stalemated the line of scrimmage most of the time, either getting hands on the running back or allowing linebackers to clean him up after minimal gains. He escaped on a few runs, as he was always going to, and a couple of those escapes looked really bad for the defensive line: an early touchdown where Kevin Hester got hands on him and couldn’t finish; a later touchdown where he just outran everybody from outside the red zone. But Pitt couldn’t rely on him to regularly move the chains, and the Panthers’ offense stagnated later in the game as a result — and when they called on him in a key spot on 3rd and 1, the line reared back, pushed the line of scrimmage backwards, and cleared the way for Cedric Gray to hit Abanikanda and force the ball out, effectively ending Pitt’s hopes for a comeback.

Things looked worrying in the passing game, where we at first were treated to the familiar scene of linemen without pass-rush plans trying to condense the pocket with raw strength, giving a talented enough quarterback time to find guys open deep. After Noah Taylor and Des Evans left with injury, though, the alignments up front changed, and this was enough for the Heels to start to get interior pressure just by virtue of doing something different, and Kedon Slovis basically wouldn’t complete a meaningful pass for the last 20+ minutes of game time. Hopefully, they’ve found something in that final performance to carry forwards and start to become the kind of pass-rushing unit we thought they could be.

Linebackers: A-

Cedric Gray is continuing his campaign as possibly the ACC’s best linebacker, again leading the Heels in tackles with 9 and tacking on a few big plays, including that forced fumble and a pressure on Slovis. He’s effective going downhill, rushing the passer through the A-gap, and in coverage, and has frequently been covering for his teammates up front when they don’t keep an offensive lineman from the second level like they should. He’s also taken on the role of on-field coach, and I saw him at least 3 different times physically move a defensive lineman into the proper alignment when they were confused about the playcall. Power Echols also had a good, but rather quiet, game as his running mate, making his presence felt with a pass breakup in the backfield. And backing them up, RaRa Dillworth was on the field more by necessity and made a few positive plays for probably the first time in conference play, including half a sack and some great plays chasing ballcarriers to the boundary.

As for on-ball linebackers, Kaimon Rucker really shone in an expanded role after the injuries to Des Evans and Noah Taylor. He only recorded two tackles, but among those was half a sack, and he also helped get the penetration and first contact on Gray’s forced fumble. He was also the catalyst in making Slovis uncomfortable in the second half of the game, forcing the offensive line to pull attention his way and giving interior rushers some space to exploit and get in Slovis’ face.

Secondary: C+

It was the secondary, and specifically Storm Duck, that shut the door on Pittsburgh with a couple of plays displaying a kind of physicality and reactiveness that has been straight-up absent from the back end of the UNC defense this year. Duck diagnosed a screen on third down and beat two blockers to violently blow it up in the backfield, and then on the next play closed on a quick out from off coverage perfectly, stonewalling the receiver short of the sticks and actually forcing an incompletion with his violence. Duck was second on the team in tackles, but, on the other hand, most of those came after he’d allowed catches downfield, and his backfield mates didn’t do much better in coverage for most of the game. Pittsburgh receiver Jared Wayne ran deep posts against everybody for the first 40 minutes of the game, as UNC committed its safeties to the run game and asked corners to play outside leverage, practically begging for deep balls to the middle of the field. Even so, they probably shouldn’t have been as badly roasted as they often were: Duck, DeAndre Boykins, Tony Grimes, and Gio Biggers were all victimized, and Cam Kelly got away with one as well when Wayne dropped a sitter. All of those plays led to Pitt scores, which was unfortunate, because other than that specific route, things went pretty well. Four UNC defensive backs had breakups, and Slovis completed just 14/31 passes. They did pretty well in run support too, with Tony Grimes mixing it up in the middle of the field being a welcome sight. Those gashes were just too big to ignore a decent performance otherwise.

Special Teams: B+

There were some moderate highs and moderate lows for the Heels on special teams. Things started out great, with a line-drive kick from Ben Kiernan forcing Pitt return man MJ Devonshire to get the ball running backwards. Devonshire looked like he might be able to turn a corner with his speed and turn a negative into a positive, but Elijah Green tripped him up just as he made his move and creating an 11-yard loss, backing Pitt up into the shadow of their goal line and helping force a three-and-out. The punt team tried the same thing on the next punt, but this time Devonshire fielded it cleanly and did turn a corner, returning it 26 yards into UNC territory — Pitt scored a touchdown 3 plays later. In the middle of all that, the Heels almost created disaster on a Pittsburgh punt by running into the kicker, but fortunately that’s a 5-yard penalty without automatic first down, so it just gave the Panthers a better punt. After that, though, things got better again. UNC made a heads-up play when it looked like a Kiernan punt had bounced off a Pitt coverage player and snagged the loose ball, but replays showed it had just missed — still, the effort and awareness were good. Noah Burnette’s kickoffs started going into the end zone, asking Pitt to make tougher returns — UNC’s coverage had been good on the earlier ones, but the kicks had been short enough that good coverage still had drives starting near the 25. And in the fourth quarter, with UNC up 35-24 and having forced a punt that would allow the Heels to shut the door, Josh Downs caught a punt at speed and turned it into a 23-yard gain, giving UNC the ball in Pitt territory. UNC’s last score came 3 plays later, mirroring that Pittsburgh sequence from earlier. Noah Burnette hasn’t had much to do as a field goal kicker lately because the Heels have been scoring touchdowns, but he did kick an extra point from 10 yards further out after a penalty. Good stuff all around.

Coaching: A-

No complaints here. I talked about both Gene Chizik and Phil Longo’s adjustments to Pitt’s gameplan and early-game successes in my Three Things Learned, so I won’t rehash that here other than to say they happened, they worked, and that I was glad to see them and hope to see such flexibility as time goes on. Other than that, there isn’t much notable to talk about. The penalties were cut down this game, at 6 for 52 yards, which isn’t anything to complain about. And the staff deserves credit for the team not panicking after going down 10 in the third quarter with a couple of drives that looked all too familiar — the way both sides of the ball responded and dominated the last 20 minutes is something we’ve rarely seen in Chapel Hill the past 5 seasons or so. I’d love to see that become a trend.