Six games into North Carolina’s season and they stand at 4-2 on the year, 2-1 in ACC play. Despite the disappointing defeat at the hands of Virginia Tech, the Tar Heels are where they are because of the amazing effort by Mitch Trubisky and his league of receivers up to this point. However, UNC might have also had some help from their opponents’ tendencies to commit penalties.
Through Saturday’s game, Tar Heels opponents have committed 9.8 penalties per game, which is the fourth most against any one FBS team. Those penalties have also cost UNC opponents 82.2 penalty yards per game, ranking sixth. Finally, UNC has benefitted more than any other team as their opponents have 0.07 penalties per play.
Penalty yards can be crucial in determining the outcome of a game. This proved to be key in two particular match-ups this year. Illinois didn’t do themselves any favors by committing 13 penalties for a loss of 99 total yards against the Tar Heels in September. Overall, the Illini have incurred 8.8 penalties per game with a loss of 65 yard per game. North Carolina’s 48-23 win likely didn’t come down to penalty yards, but it definitely didn’t do Champaign any favors.
UNC’s win over Florida State, however, could have been determined by penalties. The defense did a good job holding FSU back enough for Nick Weiler’s 54-yard kick to come into play, but it might not have even happened if the penalty yardage worked out differently. The game included a mismatched amount of penalties, as the Seminoles suffered from 13 total flags for a loss of 120 yards against UNC’s own six penalties for 49 yards. FSU has played very sloppy this season, incurring 9.6 penalties per game–highest in the ACC–for a loss of 95.2 yards per game.
While North Carolina gets a lot of credit for their win in Tallahassee, it shouldn’t be ignored that they received a lot of help from their opponent. Florida State made it easy (even though it didn’t look it). I would imagine that things could have gone a lot differently if this year’s Florida State team was a more disciplined unit.
Generally, in North Carolina match-ups, the team with the most penalties incurred ends up on the short end of the stick. In fact, the only win where the Tar Heels had significantly more penalty yards than their opponents was the game against James Madison. The final outcome of that game was expected, but against a better team, committing 10 penalties for a loss of 110 yards will get you nowhere.
So far this season the Tar Heels have lost 59.2 yards per game with a penalty coming 7.5 times per game. That number ranks them second in the ACC, and looking at the team’s upcoming schedule, it could easily come into play again.
Next week’s matchup against Miami will be UNC’s last tough game of the season. The Hurricanes are now 4-1 after losing a heartbreaker to FSU on Saturday. Miami has been a tough team to beat, but penalties might be their undoing against the Tar Heels. They just gave up 110 yards on 10 penalties, essentially costing them their undefeated season. North Carolina will need every advantage they can find if they want to win next week and stay in the Coastal Division race, and going up against an opponent that has average 8.0 penalties per game with a loss of 78 yards per game might be just the advantage they need.
After Miami, UNC goes up against lowly Virginia. Like the Illinois game, it probably won’t come down to penalties, but going up against a team that commits 7.8 per game with a loss of 74.2 yards per game will make the matchup that much easier.
Unfortunately from there, they don’t go up against another team with troubling penalty numbers. Georgia Tech has been a rock solid unit, which means North Carolina will need to be extra careful that day. Thankfully though, Duke and NC State shouldn’t be much competition either way.
The Tar Heels are a talented unit that can take advantage of other teams’ mistakes. That’s a dangerous combination, which might help them get through Miami. Let’s just hope they don’t become to reliant on those mistakes.