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Did North Carolina’s 2016 offense have a Mitch Trubisky problem?

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Trubisky was prolific, but the 2016 offense was markedly worse at everything than 2015.

NCAA Football: Sun Bowl-Stanford vs North Carolina Ivan Pierre Aguirre-USA TODAY Sports

Disclaimer: Mitch Trubisky just had the best passing season in North Carolina history, and his draft status will pay dividends for the Heels for years to come. I have no problem calling him the best quarterback ever to wear Carolina Blue, even if his talents were enjoyed for only one season.

Disclaimer over. Trubisky’s exploits, or the game plans based around his talent, had a profound negative impact on the Tar Heels’ offense. He wasn’t the run threat that Marquise Williams was (one could argue that this is by design, among other reasons, because he didn’t have a future 1st-round draft pick backing him up), and the coaches’ confidence in Trubisky came at the expense of touches for two talented running backs. (At the risk of going all #HOTSPORTSTAKES on y’all, one could argue that the limited touches for Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan just cost UNC the #1 running back recruit in the country).

Larry Fedora’s offense is predicated on balance. In his introductory press conference at UNC, he said the goal was to average 200+ yards both rushing and passing. Lofty goal, yes, but he accomplished the feat in two of four years at Southern Miss. The worst output on either side was 181.36 yards per game on the ground in 2009.

While I’m not a statistical genius who can linear program my way into telling you the correlation between rushing yards per game and success, I can give you this: 2016 was the first time the rush/pass ratio under Fedora ever dropped below 49.3% (2014, where its hard not to pass while giving up 40 points per game). The number? 46.6%, which is to say that Carolina threw the ball 6.7% more in 2016 than Fedora’s career average.

That’s not a slight aberration, that’s a full-scale philosophical shift.

One could go look at the numbers and say, “the rushing attack wasn’t very good last year.” They would be wrong. According to Bill Connolly’s S&P, Carolina was 27th in rushing success...they just didn’t run enough to allow Hood and Logan to make an impact.

NCAA Football: North Carolina vs Georgia
Running the ball: it works against the mighty SEC!
Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Case in point, the season opener vs. Georgia. In the first half, Carolina attempted to pass seven times on first down. They ran it twice on first downs—the first play of the game, and to Elijah Hood for 32 yards on their fifth possession. On the first touchdown drive, the Heels covered 52 yards...and all 52 came on the ground.

On the first drive of the second half, they went 5 plays for 75 yards, with Trubisky running for 7, Hood for 5, Hood for 19, a pass to Ryan Switzer for 23, and Logan hitting paydirt with a run from 21 out to make it 24-14. Georgia answered with a touchdown of their own, and Carolina came back out with the following plays: pass incomplete, pass illegal receiver downfield (over which I will lose my life arguing with a Georgia fan), pass safety.

The rest, as they say, is history. The Heels ran the ball 19 times for 8.4 yards an attempt, and threw the ball 40 times for 3.9 per pass. Ouch.

While the run/pass ratio didn’t again depart rational human understanding, the Heels still threw on 52.9 percent of plays after the Georgia game—still a career high by a significant amount for a Fedora offense.

While its irresponsible to place the blame for this squarely on Trubisky (perhaps it was a playcalling issue with the departure of Seth Littrell), it is informative to see what two different styles of quarterback did with largely the same personnel. The comparison is also informative because both years were played opposite Gene Chizik’s “bend but don’t break” scheme, skewing the number of plays downward fairly equally—the Heels offense averaged 0.8 more plays in 2015 than 2016.

Let’s nerd out!*

*Advanced rankings courtesy of Bill Connelly at FootballStudyHall.com, a glossary of his shorthand can be found here. All numbers are opponent-adjusted.

The numbers are telling. The Heels averaged over a touchdown less per game, and over half a yard less per play—even through the air! The unwillingness to let Trubisky do much with his legs (underutilized asset of his, in my opinion) cost the run game over a yard per attempt.

IsoPPP is my favorite stat, it breaks down both how often a team was successful, and how strong a team was when it did have a successful play. Carolina’s IsoPPP only went down four hundredths of a point, but the commensurate ranking drop from 4th to 15th means efficiency and explosiveness were down relative to the rest of the nation by a substantial margin. Points per drive inside the 40 (which is creeping into broadcasts as the new “red zone”—pay attention this year) was down by half a point per trip. Though Carolina is wont to score from more than 40 yards out, the Heels missed a second running threat in the backfield to isolate defenders.

NCAA Football: Lambeau Field College Classic-Louisiana State vs Wisconsin
This offense is tailor-made for Brandon Harris.
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

What does it all mean for 2017? The Heels have to replace a LOT of personnel on offense, obviously, but I think they can get back to their roots as a run-”first” (quotations to account for the fact that, again, Fedora strives for balance) team. Brandon Harris on the read should make the running game altogether more efficient and explosive, even accounting for less home run threats at running back. If he’s accurate in the short passing game, the downfield attack—his strength as a thrower—opens up. Think Bug Howard getting past the Duke defense over and over again in the 2015 shellacking.

The questions are out there: how will Jordon Brown, Michael Carter, Stanton Truitt, etc. adapt to major playing time? Can a new receiving corps match the production of Switzer, Mack Hollins, and Howard? Does Brandon Fritts or Carl Tucker emerge as an Eric Ebron-lite?

Maybe the offense didn’t have a Trubisky problem, but it certainly appears the coaching staff leaned too heavily on the Chicago Bears QB. With a renewed (and likely necessary) focus on the ground game, the Heels can get back to Fedora’s career 52.6% run vs. pass ratio. Doing so will help raise the expectations for the 2017 offense immensely.