North Carolina traveled to Norfolk, Virginia and drove away with their first victory of 2017. It can be hard to discern anything of note against inferior competition, but there are always lessons to be learned. This week was no different.
Chazz Surratt got the start, and picked up where he left off against Louisville. On the day he was an efficient 16-24 for 257 yards and one touchdown. He hit seven different receivers (and one offensive lineman) on the day, averaging 10.1 yards per attempt. While the competition was a few levels below Cal and Louisville, it was a steady outing and allowed Chazz to show off his arm as he grows into a quarterback of the future.
Surratt also showed dual-threat abilities with 2 TD runs, on only 9 “carries,” though one was a sack, and one was a fumble that slipped out of his hands.
He continues to show solid awareness in the pocket, and aside from the aforementioned fumble, showed poise and purpose behind the line. Whatever deficiencies he showed yesterday are simply a by-product of his inexperience. A few passes floated and he doesn’t have the accuracy or power (yet) to hit some of the tighter windows along the sideline or quick slants. He’s mitigated those weaknesses with smart decision making and playing within his limitations. That was on display again in Norfolk.
Brandon Harris didn’t hear his name called until the 4th quarter, and only attempted 2 passes. He maintained the run-heavy gameplan, and with the game well out of reach did what was expected of him in that situation. For a player who needs a few series to find a rhythm, it was a difficult spot to be in.
Running Backs: 9/10
The running game got back on track after UNC seemingly abandoned it last week. From the opening drive it was clear that the Heels were going to focus on the ground attack. Seven different players ran for 254 yards. Through two games, Old Dominion had only allowed 2.52 yards per carry. Yesterday, the Heels averaged 5.2 yards on 41 carries. Most impressively, most of those came of off counters or between the tackles. They didn’t need to get cute or rely on broken pass plays and QB scrambles to pad those numbers. Simply put, the running game was dominant, disciplined, and effective.
Behind a patchwork offensive line that is vastly different than was expected at the beginning of the season, Michael Carter and Jordan Brown carved up the Monarchs all afternoon. Carter did most of his damage late and managed 67 yards on 13 carries, with two touchdowns. Brown was the lead back for the majority of the day, and turned 17 carries into 125 yards and two more scores.
Carter may be the more exciting running back but it’s clear to me that Brown is currently a more complete player. Not quite as elusive as Carter, Brown is more patient in his reads, more deliberate in his moves, and actively seeks contact every time he touches the ball. Carter will continue to see his role expand as the season goes on, but the overall running game, when emphasized, appears to be trending in the right direction.
Wide Receivers: 7/10
Considering the Heels seemed content to run the ball for the majority of the afternoon, it was a ho-hum performance that we’ve all come to expect from the Heels. With the exception of Thomas Jackson leaving the game in the first quarter with an apparent knee injury, the WRs were all over the field.
Jordan Cunningham replaced Jackson, and promptly hauled in a 17 yard pass across the middle. On the next play, he drew a pass interference on ODU. The Heels scored a few plays later. Later in the second half he hauled in a 48 yard pass down the sideline, setting up a Michael Carter touchdown from the three yard line.
Austin Proehl, quiet for most of the day, still managed 48 yards on only three receptions, including the only receiving touchdown on the day.
Carl Tucker also got in on the action. Finding space in the seams, he caught three balls for 79 yards. In true 2017 UNC Football fashion, all three receptions were in the first half. The trend of Tar Heel tight ends being skunked in the second half of games continues for another week.
Even with the imbalanced play-calling, the wide receivers made their presence known.
Offensive line: 15/10
No Tommy Hatton. No Cam Dillard. No Bentley Spain. All were penciled in as starters in the pre-season, and none of them played on Saturday due to injuries. Jared Cohen re-joined the team this summer, only to walk away from the sport (again). Khaliel Rodgers “retired” and then “unretired” during fall camp. I don’t care who the opponent is – for an offensive line to deal with as much adversity as UNC’s has in the first month of the season deserves to be lauded, applauded, and recognized.
This weekend, their positive production was rampant once again. On Saturday they didn’t allowed one sack and only committed one false start. With the exception of one play when Charlie Heck (who also had one illegal block) turned into a statue, the quarterbacks only hit the ground because they were tackled or slid after a positive gain. Considering Old Dominion led the nation in sacks through the first two weeks, that’s not a small accomplishment.
Even more impressive is that with the exception of R.J. Prince and Khaliel Rodgers, the major contributors consisted of sophomores or freshmen. True freshman Jay-Jay McCargo specifically deserves recognition for stepping into the starting center role one week after being forced into emergency duty when Cam Dillard went down with an injury.
They even contributed to the receiving game when Mason Veal chased down a deflected pass and plucked it from the air.
For a team that desperately needed a victory, the o-line ensured the Heels delivered a dominant performance.
Defensive Line 5/10
Coming into the game, the Monarchs were averaging less than five yards per play. Their offense is not, what one might call, a “juggernaut”. After two sub-par weeks, the defensive line needed an opponent like ODU to gain some confidence back. Overall, they succeeded, though wasn’t as dominant a performance as most would have liked.
They continued their stifling of opponent’s running games, as they held the Monarchs to 102 yards on 33 carries for an average of 3.1 yards. Only five plays went for more than five yards on the ground and three of those were in the fourth quarter when the game was well in hand. Five tackles for loss from the defensive line didn’t hurt. The run defense, in a word, was dominant. While not unexpected, it was fun to watch.
However, despite six hurries, they still are struggling to get regular pressure on the QB. No team can pressure the quarterback every play, but more than one combined sack from Malik Carney and Aaron Crawford (or any other defensive lineman) should have been expected.
Certainly some of those expectations changed when ODU did their best Larry Fedora impersonation and played musical quarterbacks. Finally settling on the more mobile freshman Steven Williams, ODU was able to open up their play book. Williams’ athleticism and ability to run helped limit the pressure that could be delivered by the Heels’ line, as UNC seemingly reduced their aggressiveness. Maybe they got tired.
Regardless, even a contain-style pass rush against a Conference USA opponent should have at least made Williams uncomfortable. Instead, he had numerous opportunities to just stand in the pocket and attempt passes all over the secondary.
Missing Andre Smith to a suspected injury, and coming off an embarrassing display of ineptitude last week, the linebackers rebounded nicely in Week 3. The rushing numbers mentioned above can be partially attributed to the linebackers continued defensive run support.
Most refreshing was renewed success in defending the short and medium routes that decimated the Heels last week. One way a team averages less than five yards per play is with quick one and three step drops followed by quick slants, curls, drags, and screens. Early in the game ODU made these a focal point, but so did the linebackers. By shutting this option down early, ODU largely abandoned it until late in the game.
Cayson Collins, and Andre Smith’s replacement Jonathan Smith, specifically were dialed in across the middle of the field and provided some stability between the hash marks. They led the team with six tackles apiece. Cole Holcomb added 4 tackles, two hurries, and a tackle for loss.
Bottom line: the linebackers did what they were supposed to, didn’t make any mistakes, and returned a sense of normalcy to the defense.
The secondary was able to grab their third interception of the season and recovered a fumble. Aside from those two highlights, it wasn’t an encouraging performance.
Despite some aesthetically pleasing numbers, there’s still plenty of concern in the defensive backfield. They held to the Monarchs to just 14-32 passing for 214 yards for an average of 6.1 yards per attempt. Those are both season lows, but they still allowed 15.1 yards per reception. Though they “forced” 18 incomplete passes, only three of these were truly deflected or broken up.
More frustrating, they were burned for two more plays over 50 yards, including a 71 yard touchdown pass. They still don’t have an answer for what Larry Fedora calls “catastrophic” plays. Whether they get beat down the field, commit pass interference, or fail to tackle opponents Saturday’s contest had a little bit of everything.
On one drive, in the span of three plays, Donnie Miles was called for pass interference, missed a tackle, and called for another pass interference. He was called for three total PI’s on the day.
Corey Bell was beaten across the middle for a late touchdown. Miles Dorn was beaten for the first long passing play, and later for a touchdown. Fortunately he forced the fumble near the goal line that prevented another Monarch score.
These weren’t like week 1 when Ross Bowers and his receivers just made football plays on 50/50 balls in the end zone. Instead, the entire secondary continues to miscommunicate on coverages, get beat deep down the field, and bail out opponents with penalties or poor tackling. After three games, it may be time to admit that this secondary is one of the biggest weaknesses on the team.
I will admit M.J. Stewart was predictably the lone bright spot with five tackles and one sack.
Special Teams: 5/10
The day started off well for the special teams units. Tyler Powell, in his first game of the season, made his presence felt with a blocked field goal. Manny Miles found the end zone on one of UNC’s funky two-point conversions. Freeman Jones knocked in a 35-yard field goal and was a perfect 6 for 6 for extra points.
Life was good. Then the Tar Heels reminded us why we can’t have nice things.
Allowing a 100-yard kick return for a touchdown puts a damper on things. So does a muffed punt when two Tar Heels trip over each other like two outfielders in a Single-A baseball game. The outcome of the game was never truly in doubt but, this season, unforced errors like those will be the difference in a bowl game or sitting at home for Christmas. I expected better.
Give the coaching staff credit. They made decisions and stuck with those decisions for the majority of the day.
Quarterback? Check. Running game? Fully committed. Cute, non-standard, trick plays? With the exception of the two-point conversion, the play calling was pretty standard.
To be fair, the staff did not find themselves in any difficult positions. Clock management, fourth and short situations, or even playing from behind was never a consideration. That made it easier to stick with their game plan, but this game could easily have seen more experimentation.
After last week’s performance, who honestly thought Brandon Harris wouldn’t make an appearance until the fourth quarter? After abandoning what is turning into a lethal 1-2 punch at running back against Louisville, they gave Michael Carter and Jordan Brown a combined 30 carries. (Seriously, where was that against VaTech last year?) Even the passing game is remaining relatively conservative as Surratt and Harris get acclimated and/or as the WRs learn their limitations.
Overall, the Heels got out of the Tidewater with a win, restored some confidence, and hopefully have a road map for future success. They’re going to need that next week when Duke comes to town.