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UNC’s loss to Louisville: Positional grades and analysis

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1106. Total. Yards.

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

We always knew this game wasn’t going to be easy. Between a total rebuild on offense, losing a respected defensive coordinator, and the opponent’s quarterback happening to be the reigning Heisman trophy winner, many Carolina fans would have been surprised if this game was at all close. And yet, close it was, and UNC even led at the beginning of the fourth quarter. Even though the team pretty much fell apart at that point, there was a lot to like this week.

Offense:

Quarterbacks: 8/10

Last week, the quarterback battle in Chapel Hill looked like it had a clear winner in Chazz Surratt, which was seemingly confirmed by his starting this week, going 12/14 for 168 yards in the first half with two touchdowns, and generally having control of the offense.

He made one freshman mistake early in the game by running backwards away from the pocket, then fumbling backwards as he tried to make something happen, which went down in the stat sheet as a -30 yard run. Additionally, on 3rd down late in the first half, he misfired over the middle on 3rd down, giving Louisville a chance to score again with a minute left.

The blame for this play isn’t entirely on him, as he shouldn’t have been throwing in the first place, but it was a misfire. Other than those plays, though, he controlled tempo, threw on time and on target for the most part, and kept the Heels in the game in the first half. His second touchdown drive was notable for the control and ability he displayed. He converted a fourth down to Carl Tucker, then found Brandon Fritts down the seam, then, on first and goal, ran away from pressure and threw Fritts open for a touchdown.

All three throws displayed pinpoint accuracy in high-pressure situations. Unfortunately, he tweaked an ankle (we think) near the end of the first half on a quarterback run, and was seen going to the locker room before the half ended proper.

He wasn’t ready to start the second half, and Brandon Harris stepped up to the plate. After what can charitably be called a shaky first drive, during which he threw what should have been an interception on 4th down, Harris. Had. A. Day. He and Austin Proehl hooked up for several long completions, as he showed off his arm talent by consistently going downfield and challenging a depleted Louisville secondary.

He wasn’t as accurate as Surratt, and a couple of slight misfires on easy throws cost the offense, but he also showed the ability to make tight-window throws downfield that are only possible due to his arm strength, a trait Surratt has not yet displayed to the same degree. His single touchdown pass, to Thomas Jackson, was an excellent example of this. On the other hand, his pass to Fritts on 4th down near the end of the game was behind the tight end, forcing him to turn all the way around and lose time to run for what could have been a touchdown. He finished 17/23 for 216 yards and a touchdown.

Both quarterbacks were effective, but Surratt’s one big blunder and one small blunder and Harris’ several medium-sized blunders bring them both down to an 8/10 grade this week. Bad news: UNC’s quarterback battle might be less clear than it was at this time last week. The good news: Last week, it was unclear whether either quarterback could really lead the Tar Heel offense. This week, both looked more than capable.

Running Backs: 4/10

Last week, the Heels racked up over 200 yards rushing. This week, even if you erase the Surratt self-sack, they didn’t even crack 50. While you can blame part of that on a change in offensive playcalling, as the offense ran 44 times against California and only 23 times against Louisville, but even on the opportunities they did get, the running backs did not run with the same explosiveness or consistency that we saw last week.

Jordon Brown had a good first drive, with two tough runs in the red zone to set up play action for an easy touchdown pass, but was largely absent after that, and finished with 6 rushes for 23 yards. He added a reception for 8 yards. Michael Carter failed to build on an incredible debut, and was frequently stuffed near the line of scrimmage. His final stat line was an uninspiring 8 carries for 15 yards. He did score the game’s final touchdown, though it took him a couple of tries.

The only reason this grade isn’t lower is that their lack of performance was not entirely their fault, and to their credit, both backs seemed to maximize almost every touch they had. The outside factors that may have limited them will be appropriately called out further down the page.

Receivers: 9/10

Oddly, the position group on offense that many UNC fans were most worried about coming into the season is the one that feels most secure right now. UNC’s receivers did just about everything they could against the Louisville secondary to keep up with Lamar Jackson’s one-man offensive show. Austin Proehl led the way with 120 yards on 8 receptions, but several players stood out.

Dazz Newsome took UNC’s first offensive play 54 yards on a jet sweep shovel pass, Brandon Fritts had two touchdowns and could have had a third with a more accurate pass, Anthony Ratliff-Williams made a couple of nice catches in traffic, and Thomas Jackson made a few nice plays before and after the catch. Jake Bargas even showed up in garbage time as he had three quick catches to march the Heels into the red zone.

Proehl deserves special mention, though, as he made plays in a variety of ways: He shook off defenders on a well-covered screen to get a first down, turned defensive backs all the way around deep downfield to create separation, and, early in the game tipped an errant pass to himself with one hand and created a first down. He had to be the leader of the group, and he’s filling that role so far. Also, he threw a pass, even if it went out of bounds.

This grade isn’t a 10 because of some little things. Thomas Jackson slowed down on a route early that could have been a touchdown had he trusted his quarterback to lead him downfield. On at least 2 different 3rd/4th downs, the coaching staff called the same passing play that failed last week on 4th down. It’s not a good play call, and I’ll get into that later this week. However, the receivers need to execute what they’re given, and on this concept, they were sloppy, leading to failed conversions. In the grand scheme of the game, they weren’t huge miscues nor were they even primarily the receivers’ fault, but transcending situation is what gets you a 10/10 in my book.

Offensive Line: 6.5/10

Last week, the OL powered the Heels to a 200-yard rushing game. This week, we... did not see the same kind of results. Whatever the line lost in the passing game, though, they made up for in pass protection. They held Louisville to two sacks and no QB hits, and generally gave whomever they were protecting enough time to go through reads throw with their feet set. Both quarterbacks saw clean pockets for the most part and rarely panicked, and that is a testament to the line play.

Left tackle William Sweet was particularly solid, which UNC fans have to be happy about from the redshirt sophomore. Unfortunately, center Cam Dillard went down with a leg injury in the second half, having had a good game until then. His replacement was quiet, which can only be a good thing for an offensive lineman, but hopefully Dillard’s injury isn’t too serious. The consistent lack of push in the run game keeps this grade from being too high. There is definitely something to be said for keeping your quarterbacks upright, though, and 2 sacks and no QB hits falls firmly under that umbrella.

Defense:

A quick note on the defense as a whole before I break them down by position: This was a unit that, for the past several years, had been built around a philosophy of “bend-don’t-break.” They were never the strength of the team, and only had to limit the opposition to scoring scarcely enough for the offense to outscore them.

This year, with a new defensive coordinator and the expectation that they would anchor the team, they have gone away from that philosophy, and not in a good way. Most of the time, they look like a really good unit. But too often, the top breaks off and offenses put up big plays with no resistance. Lamar Jackson is really, really good. But if you want to anchor your team, you cannot allow over 700 yards of offense. This group really needs to step up, and quickly.

This also makes the defense really hard to grade. Most of the time, they’re making good plays, so I want to grade them well. But the miscues they make are just too huge to ignore.

Defensive Line: 5.5/10

The defensive line had a tough job: containing the reigning Heisman trophy winner. To that end, they didn’t really seem interested in sacking Jackson so much as they did trying to push the offensive line into Jackson’s face. Sometimes, they succeeded and forced errant throws. Much of the time, the Louisville offensive line was sturdy enough to give Jackson the time to scan the field and beat the Heels with his arm. And the rest of the time, the line got free, Jackson slipped what had looked like a sure sack, and then made a huge play because he’s Lamar Jackson. UNC could have had 5 sacks in this game, but only converted two. On the other three plays, Jackson tossed a 75-yard touchdown, scrambled for a big first down, and threw a strike for a first down. Missed opportunities by the line (and blitzers) gave Louisville real momentum-changing plays.

The line was pretty solid in the run game for most of the game. Tomon Fox and Dajaun Drennon held the edge fairly well, not letting running backs beat them to the sideline. They didn’t get real stops on the edge, but they limited yardage, which was not nothing in this game. Jalen Dalton was nothing short of beastly. After a disappointing early exit for targeting last week, Dalton made his mark legally, early, and often in this game. He finished with three tackles for loss, including a sack, and his fourth tackle was a run-down of a Louisville running back 75 yards down the field. Read that again. A defensive tackle. Ran down a running back. He’s got the potential to be a special player. He also hit Jackson twice. Both he and Aaron Crawford abused the Louisville center all game long and were the only real problem that Jackson had in this game.

The line was gassed in the fourth quarter and it showed, as Louisville started to bully them in the run game en route to 20 straight points. It’s hard to blame them, however, as the work they did in the first three quarters went largely unrewarded by the guys behind them.

Linebackers: 2.5/10

Andre Smith got some press during the week for saying that UNC wasn’t going to let Lamar Jackson “do anything” against them. It was innocuous bravado, but Smith was going to have to back up his talk at least a little when Saturday came.

And in the first drive, he did. He had several nice tackles in the open field, limited Louisville’s run game from both running backs and Lamar Jackson, and helped hold the offense to a field goal. After that, though, Bobby Petrino started to get him where he couldn’t hold up: in pass coverage. Smith and his linebacker teammates were matched one-on-one with Louisville wide receivers over and over again, and Louisville took advantage of these missed opportunities whenever they came up. Smith allowed Louisville’s first touchdown because he couldn’t keep up in man coverage. On the drive that led to that touchdown, the entire linebacking corps looked completely lost on short crosses and delayed running back routes, a trend that continued for most of the game.

Later, as UNC switched to more zone coverage to try and confuse Jackson, Smith was clearly uncomfortable. He got caught out of position, unaware of what was happening in his zone, and not knowing when the ball was in the air more than once. He led the team in tackles with 11, but many of those came after damage had already been done.

The linebackers were also often at Jackson’s mercy in the run game, but that’s not totally their fault; most linebackers are. Cayson Collins and Cole Holcomb were largely invisible on the day, though Collins did have a half-sack on the day. For a unit expected to be one of UNC’s strengths this year, the linebackers did not play up to expectations.

Secondary: 4.5/10

The secondary was trusted to do a lot in this game, as the defensive gameplan called for them to win one-on-one while their teammates stacked the box. They had an uneven game, which, as previously alluded to, goes down as a net negative.

I can point out a lot of great plays. Myles Dorn had an excellent pass defensed in the first half on Louisville’s first touchdown drive. M.J. Stewart followed that up by tackling Jackson in the backfield. Later, Dorn got into the backfield to drag Jackson down for a loss. Safeties in the box frequently helped limit Louisville’s rushing yardage through the first three quarters.

But for every one of those, there was at least one major slip-up. Stewart got beat on the first touchdown pass down the middle and then got beaten down the field on Jackson’s 75-yard touchdown pass, though the responsibility for that play might lie a little with the safety Dorn as well, who was ball-watching and let the receiver behind him while Stewart was trying to jam him. K.J. Sails had an early pass interference, and while he had some good plays, he got beaten too frequently. Patrice Rene missed a sack on the play that became the aforementioned 75-yarder. The only player who never stood out negatively in the secondary was safety Donnie Miles, who tied for the team lead in tackles with 11 while keeping play in front of him at all times. The unit had a lot of responsibility on their shoulders, and there were too many mishaps for some sparks of brilliance to really matter.

It should be noted that like the defensive line, the safeties were clearly gassed by the end of the game, losing the edge in run support that they had previously done a decent job maintaining. Again, it’s hard to blame them too much when the Cardinal offense had been marching down the field at will regardless of their hard work.

Special Teams: 10/10

I have a rule. If special teams scores a touchdown, unless they also allow one, they can’t gt worse than a 9/10. If that touchdown comes at exactly the moment that UNC needs it most, then, well, I can’t not give them a perfect score. Anthony Ratliff-Williams has found his niche as a kickoff returner. Even besides his 94-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, he was consistently beating the first wave of kickoff coverage and getting past the 25-yard line. On 5 returns, he was only tackled short of the 25 once. In fact, he set a UNC record for return yardage with 199 yards on kickoff returns. His style of running suits the position perfectly: no hesitation, just find a crease and burst through it. Credit to the blocking as well for creating those creases.

Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, he also got downfield to down a Tom Sheldon punt at the 1-yard line. Sheldon, by the way, is living up to his status as a member of the Ray Guy award watch list. The punt that went to the 1-yard line was a 66-yard bomb. He landed every punt inside the 20, though his last one was more of a flat rugby kick that was returned for 8 yards to get Louisville past the 20.

Everything else was fine. Freeman Jones made all his extra points, kickoff coverage was good (2 returns for 35 yards total), and while the first kickoff went out of bounds, that pales to all the good that special teams did.

Coaching: 5.5/10

I’ll say this for the coaching staff: They came to this game with a defensive plan. The defense didn’t execute as well as they should have, but the plan was clear, well-intentioned, and intelligent. The defense was frequently in position to stop Lamar Jackson and the Cardinals. Too often, they just couldn’t keep up. So credit to the coaching staff for their obvious study.

But, this being UNC, there were still some weird decisions. On two different occasions on 3rd/4th and two, UNC tried the same play design that failed them last week: 2 receivers on the near side, inside receiver runs to the flat, outside receiver goes deep, throw goes to the flat for hopefully about a 4-yard gain. It’s not fooling anybody and the inside receiver has been blanketed every time, but the staff keeps plugging away at it despite the evidence and the myriad options they have in the run game. Maybe they’ll learn their lesson. The converted fourth down to Carl Tucker early in the game was a great playcall. Maybe we’ll see more of that.

Last week was a clinic in offensive balance, if nothing else. This week, UNC had just 23 rushing attempts to 38 passing attempts, and that’s with 2 QBs playing just their second game in Carolina blue. I get being aggressive as the underdog, but the score was pretty close for three quarters and the staff was still abandoning the run game. The runs that were called were painfully uncreative. Sweet, the left tackle, was having an excellent game, but he was never asked to lead block on a run to the weak side. The running backs barely went to the edges at all, a week after making it their bread and butter. The run game was very un-Fedora on Saturday, and while he has been frustrating at times, that’s not a good thing.

On the bright side, Fedora reminded us why we keep him around, too. The first offensive play of the game was a jet sweep to Dazz Newsome for 56 yards. He schemed a reverse to Austin Proehl where Proehl had the choice of throwing to one of two wide open receivers, even though the throw fell incomplete. UNC’s first two possessions near the goal line were schemed perfectly to give Surratt easy touchdown passes. And overall, UNC’s offense looked way more competent against good opposition than it had any right to.

I don’t like that the QB competition seems to not be completely over, but I guess the competition looks like more of a “who will win” scenario than a “who won’t lose” scenario now. Overall, the coaching had its bright points, but hamstrung the team at times, too, so a grade between 5 and 6 seems about right.