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UNC Football: The 2016 season in review

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A look back at Carolina football in 2016

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

There were lofty expectations for the North Carolina Tar Heels this season. Prior to the season, the media at the ACC Kickoff voted for Carolina to defend their Coastal Division crown. It was a tall order to fill, especially coming off UNC football’s most successful season since the end of the Mack Brown era.

The Tar Heels did not live up to expectations. However, an 8-4 record and second place divisional finish is nothing to hang your head about, especially after the turbulence of the Butch Davis era and underwhelming years under John Bunting. Coach Larry Fedora and the Tar Heels have a chance to achieve a nine-win season with a bowl game win, a threshold that has been met or passed only seven times since 1980. As UNC awaits their bowl selection to close out the season, let’s take a look back at 2016.

Here are the results from 2016 regular season:

vs. #18 Georgia

L 24–33

at Illinois

W 48–23

vs. James Madison

W 56–28

vs. Pittsburgh

W 37–36

at #12 Florida State

W 37–35

vs. #25 Virginia Tech

L 3–34

at #16 Miami

W 20–13

at Virginia

W 35–14

vs. Georgia Tech

W 48–20

at Duke

L 27–28

vs. The Citadel

W 41–7

vs. NC State

L 21–28

The Tar Heels started the season #22 in the AP Poll and had a chance to put a victory against a ranked opponent under their belt at the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game. Carolina had a ten-point lead late in the third quarter at a virtual home game against #18 Georgia. Then bad decisions on defense and a stagnated offense, including giving up a safety, allowed the Bulldogs to come from behind and win. As it turned out, Georgia running back Nick Chubb did not have a better game all year, running for a season high 222 yards against UNC.

The magic of quarterback Mitch Trubisky was on display in the Pittsburgh and Florida State games. Down six against Pittsburgh with 3:35 left in the game, Trubisky led the Tar Heels 63 yards down the field for a Bug Howard touchdown with two seconds left in the game. During that drive, three fourth downs (!) were converted to keep the Heels moving down the field. The Nick Weiler extra point sealed the victory for Carolina in their first conference game.

In the next game against #12 Florida State, UNC led by 14 points at several junctures, but could not seem to put the Seminoles away at Doak Campbell Stadium. With just 23 seconds left in the game, missed tackles led to a Deondre Francois touchdown and Ricky Aguayo extra point put Florida State in the lead, and Tar Heels fans were about to see the same old ending to the same old movie once again. Trubisky led the Tar Heels on another drive, aided by a Mack Hollins reception and defensive pass interference call, set up a 54-yard field goal attempt for the win. Kicker Nick Weiler had ice running through his veins, as he nailed the game winning kick from close to midfield and chopped his way into Tar Heel lore.

With the Tar Heels flying high after two exciting performances, a critical game against Virginia Tech at home loomed. As it turns out, the third game in the conference schedule would be the most consequential in 2016. Yes, the conditions were terrible, but Virginia Tech had to execute in the same environment. A 34-3 drumming to the Hokies during the now infamous hurricane game was Carolina’s first regular season conference loss since 2014.

The Tar Heels responded next week with a gutsy 20-13 road win against #16 Miami. It was a tale of two halves, as Carolina scored all 20 of their points in the first half. In the second half, the defense bent but did not break as the Hurricanes put up ten points. A couple three-and-outs and a fumble recovery helped UNC hang on for a win. With Virginia Tech losing to Syracuse in Blacksburg, the Tar Heels were back in the Coastal chase.

In the next two games, running back Elijah Hood had the opportunity to play some of his best football. Against Virginia, Hood ran for 107 yards and a touchdown, while the defense held the Wahoos to 253 yards of total offense, the lowest of any opponent in 2016. At Carolina’s homecoming against Georgia Tech, Hood ran for 168 yards and three touchdowns. In both games, Trubisky threw for over 300 yards.

With the so 2016 Victory Bell in tow, the Tar Heels traveled to Durham for a Thursday night match up against Duke. The game started exactly how the Heels wanted, with two UNC touchdowns and two Duke punts. After that point, combo running attack from the Duke quarterback and running back ran all over the Carolina defense and the UNC offense stalled or turned the ball over at seemingly the most inopportune times. Adding insult to injury, Virginia Tech lost to Georgia Tech that Saturday, keeping them ahead in the Coastal due to their tiebreak advantage.

After taking care of business against FCS opponent The Citadel, a final week victory against NC State on Black Friday was needed to keep UNC’s divisional championship hopes alive. But the Wolfpack jumped on the Tar Heels from the start on Senior Day in Chapel Hill, sprinting out to a 21-0 lead and claiming a 28-21 victory. When the clock ticked to zero, Virginia Tech was crowned the Coastal Champs and NC State became bowl eligible.

Although it may be unfair to compare teams of different years, especially with changes in personnel and varying schedules, looking at the overall statistical information can help identify trends in the offense and defense. There are several notable differences between the 2015 and 2016 teams. First, as many readers may imagine, there were more passing attempts and less rushing attempts than last year. Here are the stats comparing numbers from each year through the regular season:

Year

Passing Completions

Passing Attempts

Total Passing Yards

Passing Touchdowns

Rushing Attempts

Total Rushing Yards

Rushing Touchdowns

2015

226

337

3,188

25

459

2,760

36

2016

290

420

3,531

28

364

1,778

20

Last year, the Heels threw on 42 percent of offensive plays, while this year that percentage jumped up to 53 percent. One major factor for these differences was the quarterback. Marquise Williams, a dual threat option, had more opportunities to run and the offense was better suited to do so with a more experienced offensive line. Mitch Trubisky, the better passer, took advantage of his opportunities to throw, becoming the single-season record holder for passing yards, even before playing in a bowl game. Trubisky’s go-to target, Ryan Switzer, now holds the single-season record for receptions.

The major gripe from UNC fans is the lack of touches by running back Elijah Hood. In 12 regular season games last year, Hood had 191 rushing attempts, accounting for 1,280 yards and 16 touchdowns. He averaged seven yards a carry in 2015. In 11 regular season games this year, Hood has 145 rushing attempts for 858 yards and eight touchdowns. His 2016 rushing average per carry is 5.9 yards. Again, there can many factors to account for the differences in yardage, especially since the yards-per-carry is separated by about a yard. The glaring statistic is the difference in touchdowns. Hood had double the touchdowns at this point last year, and this statistic relates most significantly to the perceived issues with playcalling by Carolina fans. An Elijah Hood carry in the red zone should be a no-brainer. But then again, with injuries and inexperience on the offensive line, Coach Fedora and Co-Offensive Coordinator Chris Kapolovic might have thought another type of play might have been more fruitful.

On the defensive side of the ball, the rushing defense was, once again, the weak point for Carolina. Here are comparative regular season statistics between 2015 and 2016:

Year

Average Passing Completion Percentage Allowed Per Game

Average Passing Yards Allowed Per Game

Average Rushing Yards Per Attempt Allowed

Average Rushing Yards Allowed Per Game

Average Total Offense Yards Allowed Per Game

Total Passing Touchdowns Allowed

Total Rushing Touchdowns Allowed

Total Forced Turnovers

2015

52.4%

186.2

4.6

208.8

394.9

12

15

23

2016

55.5%

186.3

4.5

232.2

418.5

10

28

14

The passing defense had similar statistics between the two seasons. For rushing defense, the number of touchdowns allowed increased by 13. Of course, this does not tell the whole story, as the yards-per-attempt allowed improved slightly over last year.

One last statistic of note is the difference in the number of forced turnovers. The UNC defense only had one interception during the 2016 regular season, compared to 15 picks last year. Forced turnovers are some of the most important plays in football, and a few more of those types of plays may have changed the course of the season. And this may be the sentiment of UNC fans about this season. A few less missed tackles or dropped balls and this could be a one or two-loss team preparing for the ACC Championship Game. Be that as it may, the Carolina football team, especially the seniors, should be proud of an eight-win season that is not over yet. Coach Larry Fedora and the coaching staff have the UNC program heading the right direction, and should be happy, but not yet satisfied, heading into 2017.