After seemingly starting to fix the errors that had plagued them through the early part of the season, the Tar Heels heavily regressed at the worst possible time and fell to their rival Blue Devils, 28-27. The reasons, at this point in Larry Fedora’s career, are predictable, so let’s get right to them.
At the beginning of the game, I thought Trubisky was back. I noted last week that he looked strangely off against Georgia Tech; even though his stats were fine, his passing was pedestrian. For most of the first half, he looked back to his old self: Zipping passes into tight windows, creating yards after the catch for his receivers, making sure defenders couldn’t get to a single pass. He threw three quick touchdowns on three great plays. He added a couple of great scrambles and overall looked like the quarterback who might be the first taken in next year’s NFL draft.
As the game went on, though, he quickly deteriorated. He closed the half with a couple of near-interceptions, then threw a real one near the beginning of the second half, was scattering passes on all three levels, and looked generally lost. He ended his game with another interception, and this one wasn’t even close to his receiver. His completion percentage looks fine, near 73%, but his passes got much less accurate as the game went on. Trubisky is far from any of the reasons the Heels lost, but he wasn’t the guy we’ve seen this season.
Backs and Receivers: 6.5/10
Larry Fedora, if you read this in the next month and a half, I have five words for you: Give. Elijah. Hood. The. Ball. He’s one of the best running backs in the country and has been since his freshman year. Good things happen when he has the ball. I know you love your quarterback. We all do. Go back and read this blog’s history; he’s gotten our game ball at least five times this season. But remember how you succeeded last season? By giving your star running back carries, which led to 17 rushing touchdowns in 14 games.
If UNC were to play 14 games again this year, which they likely now won’t, Hood would end up with 50 fewer carries than he had his sophomore season, and that was with a quarterback who was constantly a running threat. I understand the need for changing it up on the defense, to stretch the field, and to establish the passing game. I really do. But 13 carries in a close game where he averaged close to six yards a carry is indefensible.
Hood was also the team’s leading receiver in catches and yardage, with 5 for 58. I suppose this is one way to get the ball in his hands, but is this really what you’re trying to do by limiting his carries? Check down to the running back?
T.J. Logan has taken a bit of a backseat the last couple of weeks; he only had six carries against the Devils and took them for 27 yards. He added three catches for only eight yards, as the Duke defense bottled him up effectively on short pass plays. He did, however, have a kickoff return to the Duke 25-yard line after a dry spell for him in that department.
The receivers, predictably, followed Trubisky’s game trajectory. Ryan Switzer caught a deep ball early for 18 yards after being limited to screens and short passes for the past few weeks, Bug Howard used his body effectively on several passes long and short, and Thomas Jackson took a jet sweep 22 yards and added a touchdown on a well-run corner route. As Trubisky stopped being Trubisky, though, they were bottled up as well. There were several occasions where Trubisky had plenty of time and nobody open, something that has rarely happened this season.
Austin Proehl has been in a bit of a funk this ACC season. He’s gotten catches, but he and Trubisky have been just slightly off. This continued into this game, as Proehl dropped a touchdown early, which didn’t matter, and a deep pass later in the first half that was, admittedly, a little underthrown but catchable, which might’ve been the game’s turning point. His first catch of the game was a gem, as he skied to grab a high pass for a first down and showed off that he isn’t simply a technician; he’s got athleticism to him as well.
The tight ends got a little more action than usual, with Carl Tucker outrunning the defense en route to a 54-yard touchdown. Brandon Fritts was on the field, but didn’t do much after coming in to high expectations.
Offensive Line: 6/10
The offensive line followed (wait for it) Trubisky’s progression throughout the game. It’s almost like a bunch of the game’s phases are linked or something. Early, Trubisky probably could’ve waited out the first quarter on most of his passing downs. There was almost no pressure from Duke’s defensive line. As the game went on, they started getting backed into the quarterback more and more, and especially on Duke blitzes, struggled to protect the quarterback. They were fine run blocking, when they got the rare opportunity to do so.
Center Lucas Crowley is considered an All-ACC offensive line player. And if the game were only played when the clock is running, I would agree with that assessment. The guy is an absolute mauler. But he’s been killing this team pre-snap. All season long, he’s been snapping the ball to Trubisky’s knees or, when he’s really on his game, Trubisky’s upper thighs. This takes a crucial half-second away from the quarterback’s ability to survey the field. He’s also had several false starts or other pre-snap penalties, and for the player tasked with initiating the play, that’s just inconceivable to me. Penalties have frequently hamstrung Carolina drives this season, and during at least one crucial drive, this game was no different.
(Spoiler alert: This won’t be pretty)
Defensive Line: 2/10
Unlike the offensive line, which had a stretch of good play before proceeding to get owned by their defensive counterparts for the rest of the game, the defensive line was bettered by their opponents from wire to wire. Time and again, Duke was able to run through or around the line, whether the running came from one of two running backs or Duke’s mobile quarterback. One of those running backs, Shaun Wilson, had more rushing yards than the entire UNC offense. Yup, you read that right. Duke’s running backs had their way against the UNC front.
Oh, and consider this: Duke started drives from their 5-yard line and from their 1-yard line, situations that a defensive line lives for as they try to pin the offense back into their own end zone. Those possessions went for a touchdown and an almost-game-clinching drive that ate up seven minutes with Duke up one. That’s just abject failure. For a unit that had stepped up in recent weeks, this was a very disappointing game.
For a unit that had stepped up in recent weeks, this was a very disappointing game. Yes, I just repeated myself. No, it’s not a typo. The typically outstanding Andre Smith was totally absent from the football field against the Blue Devils, nearly always biting on play fakes and not even hitting as hard as he normally does. His standout positional comrade, Cole Holcomb, fared a little better, getting some pressure on Duke quarterback Daniel Jones at times, but was largely ineffective as well.
As a unit, the linebackers failed as well: On nearly every run-pass option or zone-read type play, Jones was totally unchecked. On 3rd and 13 in Duke’s own territory late in the game, Jones scrambled out of the pocket and easily ran for a first down, with no Tar Heel defenders in sight until he crossed the down marker. This play in particular was embarrassing, and the unit’s performance as a whole was not much better.
Although the other two units have been hit-or-miss this season, the secondary has usually been reliable. They disappointed against Duke, however. Des Lawrence had a game of highs and lows, with two passes broken up in the first 22 minutes, and then a very softly given up first down in a crucial 3rd-down situation where he looked totally confused by a simple fake to the outside.
M.J. Stewart had a more consistent game, although he didn’t totally lock down his receivers, either. The more worrying aspect of the secondary was the depth, or the lack thereof. Whether it’s youth or lack of skill, there is very little in the defensive backfield for UNC behind the two seniors, and they allowed a lot of deep plays to the Duke offense. Fortunately, Daniel Jones isn’t a very good deep passer, or the game might have been put away much earlier.
The safeties have been typically solid this season, but they weren’t very good against Duke, either. Dominique Green had the play that will stand out to fans, where he dropped what looked like a sure pick at the UNC 2 yard line, but the safeties made questionable plays all night long, whether it was being late on helping in pass coverage, missing tackles on running backs and receivers, and generally allowing Duke to move the ball.
Daniel Jones, as impressive as his short and medium accuracy, is not a smart quarterback. During one sequence, he threw a near-pick into double coverage (the Green drop), then threw the ball away across the entire width of the field, which could’ve easily been picked with a defender who was playing the ball, and then proceeded to throw the same pass into the same coverage that nearly picked him off the first time. These are the kind of quarterbacks that an even average defense punishes. Jones got away scot-free. Unacceptable.
This wasn’t Larry Fedora’s worst game of the year, but it was arguably his most frustrating. I wrote above about how Hood didn’t get the ball enough, but that was far from the only poor aspect of the coaching in this game. Time management was strange throughout, with the changes in tempo never really favoring his offense.
For example, when the team was trying to catch Duke by surprise and score right before the half, the team slowed down the tempo tremendously after every incomplete pass, allowing the Devils to catch their breath and prepare themselves for the next play. Personnel management was another issue. Brandon Fritts as a lead blocker, Khris Francis east-west on first and second down with a chance to put the game away, these are all just head-scratching decisions that had predictable results.
The team’s overall demeanor was just flat, and that, above anything else, falls on the coaching. The playcalling, clock management, and personnel management were all issues, but the players didn’t execute that which was given to them properly. A simply badly coached game would’ve resulted in a victory. This game was both badly coached and badly played, which means that the players weren’t prepared properly. It was a short week, and Fedora apparently didn’t change his week’s schedule enough to rally his troops to play. The result was a limp-looking team that we haven’t seen since Hurricane Matthew, and the score reflects that.
On the bright side, the staff showed some creativity in UNC’s third touchdown, so there’s that, I guess. At least this team can still be fun to watch.