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UNC vs. Duke Football: Positional grades

This team is getting harder and harder to figure out.

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

It’s become clear through four games this season that this UNC team is a team of moments more than 60-minute games. The defense always seems to hold except for a few big plays that end up defining the game, and the offense needs a few big plays to cover up for not being able to move the ball consistently. This is very frustrating. The good parts give us hope that those can become the norm on both sides of the ball, but the bad parts are backbreaking as far as the games actually being played are concerned.

It also makes the team really hard to grade: Moments skew otherwise solid performances by the defense down and otherwise unimpressive performances by the offense up. Against Duke, it was more of the same, though the team showed a bit more cohesion than it had before. That said, here are the grades for the week:

Quarterback: 3.5/10

Well, we knew that a freshman quarterback would have to take his lumps. Chazz Surratt’s first full game as a Tar Heel was easily his worst. Behind an increasingly patchwork offensive line and against a good Duke defensive front, he looked panicked for much of the game and did not show the composure that had impressed Tar Heel fans in his first three games of action.

He had his moments. He closed the first half with two great deep throws to Anthony-Ratliff Williams, the latter of which tied up a game that had no reason to be tied up at halftime. Then, in the third quarter, he gave UNC the lead with a 56-yard scramble for a touchdown. It’s unclear whether that play made him overconfident about his running ability against the Duke defense, whether the Duke pressure kept mounting, or some combination of the two, but after this, Surratt was almost non-functional behind center.

He tried to take off running on seemingly nearly every passing play, to predictably bad results. And when UNC needed to strike back after Duke had taken the lead with a sustained touchdown drive, Surratt threw the first interception of his college career, and one that will probably be among the worst he ever throws. Surratt’s going to be good in the very near future; he’s decent right now. But he’s still a freshman, and this was definitely a freshman game.

Running Backs: 4/10

This feels a little bit harsh, because the running backs couldn’t do much with a decimated offensive line going against the best rushing defense in the country. Jordon Brown was the better of the two backs on the day, with several positive plays between 5 and 8 yards. He got stuffed fairly often too, though, and finished with a line of 9 carries for 28 yards. He also didn’t seem to be searching for contact as much as he did against Old Dominion, content to be run out of bounds instead of trying to create past defenders. Michael Carter struggled to ever get going, with 7 carries for 13 yards and no carry longer than 4 yards. Both were disappointing in the receiving game, with a combined 3 catches for 13 yards.

Receivers: 7/10

UNC’s wide receivers made some great plays. Special mention goes to Anthony Ratliff-Williams, who closed the first half with a brilliant diving catch which set up a touchdown where he overpowered any defenders near him, then had another deep reception in the fourth quarter where he took the ball off the helmet of the cornerback. He finished the game with 5 catches for 125 yards and a touchdown. He just gets better every game.

The other receivers did what they could; there were no egregious drops and only one real mistake, when Roscoe Johnson forgot to look for the pass when running a go route that ended up landing in front of him. The unit was hurt even further than it already had been with the loss of Austin Proehl to a shoulder-area injury. Rontavious “Toe” Groves came back to action after being injured in preseason, but appeared to hurt his knee in action and needed to be carted off. Tight ends were essentially a non-factor in this game, so they’ll be included in here.

Offensive Line: 4/10

I can’t be too harsh on a unit that has lost 4/5 starters. That said, 51 rushing yards from the running backs is not acceptable in the offense that UNC is trying to run. The offensive line got no push in the run game in any direction, and basically the only successful designed runs worked because of misdirection in the backfield, not execution by the line. In the passing game, the line allowed four sacks, which isn’t great, and allowed heavy pressure numerous other times, which led to wasted downs at best and a game-sealing pick-six at worst.

I mentioned above that Surratt was quick to tuck the ball in the second half once pressure got to him, and while that’s something he will have to fix, it’s also something that shouldn’t happen nearly as often as it did, and that is on the line. Offensive line play is in large part dependent on cohesion, so it’s understandable that the makeshift unit didn’t have much experience with each other, but this can’t go on.

Defensive Line: 5.5/10

Duke’s Brittain Brown ran roughshod over and through the UNC defense, gashing them on 10 carries for 90 yards. Other than that, though, the UNC line held up pretty well in the run game. Daniel Jones carried 11 times for 25 yards, and the heavily-hyped Shaun Wilson carried 18 times for 56 yards and a touchdown. Those aren’t bad numbers for the defense. They did pretty well in the passing game, too, frequently getting Jones outside his comfort zone as a passer and helping hold him to just 5.9 yards per passing attempt.

Overall, they read the backfield decently and mostly didn’t fall prey to misdirection on the read-option that Duke uses heavily. Except, of course, for whenever Brown was in the backfield, and that single factor turned the line’s performance from decent to mediocre. Brown was the only Devil to record a run longer than 14 yards, and there were 35 carries not from him. For some reason, he was able to succeed where his teammates were being stood up, and that ended up making a difference.

Linebackers: 6/10

Some good, some bad, more of the same for this linebacking corps. With middle linebacker and team leader Andre Smith out for the season, Cayson Collins and Cole Holcomb had to step up. For the most part, they did. Holcomb led the team in tackles with 13, including a tackle for loss, and Collins had a half-sack in addition to 7 tackles. Andre Smith’s replacement, Jonathan Smith, looked fairly lost throughout the day, only recording 2 tackles and generally not being around the ball as much as you’d like a middle linebacker to.

This linebacking corps has been abused all season by short routes over the middle, and this continued to be the case against Duke, though it didn’t totally hamstring the Heels this time. Duke’s first touchdown was squarely on the linebackers, though, as they got sucked into play action and allowed a tight end to get well behind them for an easy touchdown.

Secondary: 6.5/10

Duke’s go-ahead touchdown drive was kicked off by a long pass from Jones that somehow made its way between two Heel defensive backs, both of whom could have easily intercepted it, and was caught by T.J. Rahming. I’d argue that this was the point at which UNC lost control of the game, control that it had maintained through strong defensive play. Not the touchdown that followed or the pick-six after that, but this completion that shouldn’t have been completed. This falls squarely on the secondary, and specifically K.J. Sails and Myles Dorn, who were the guilty parties on this play.

Besides that, though, the back of the defense played pretty well. M.J. Stewart had another incredible day (though why the coaches want to use their best defensive back to blitz so often is beyond me), with a sack, a QB hurry, and 3 pass breakups. Sails added a couple of pass breakups as well, and Dorn, despite some hiccups in coverage, was UNC’s safety option on defense, keeping the ball in front of him and finishing with 11 tackles.

Special Teams: 9/10

Tom Sheldon continued his campaign for the Heisman Trophy Ray Guy award with a day that included a 62-yard blast that was unreturned. Partially due to the offense’s inability to move the ball, he wasn’t quite as successful as he had been prior to this week: Out of 8 punts, only two were downed inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. He shanked two punts from deep in his own territory that gave Duke the ball near or even across midfield, but his net average was still a very respectable 45.1 yards per punt.

The field goal defensive unit blocked a 22-yarder from Duke that allowed UNC to tie the game up at halftime (again, the first half had no business being tied), and Freeman Jones managed to not mess up on easy kicks for the 4th straight week. Kickoff coverage and blocking were kind of weak against Duke, but that’s nitpicking. UNC’s special teams is by far its most consistent aspect of the game right now.

Coaching: 5/10

I give a lot of credit to Larry Fedora and his staff for putting out a functional football team despite devastating injury after devastating injury. He has lost multiple good offensive lineman, his only experienced wide receivers, arguably his best defensive player, and several role players for the season in what was already going to be a rebuilding year, and yet he has found a way to be leading every single game so far after 45 minutes.

That’s not nothing, and as somebody who has frequently criticized Fedora, I applaud him for this. He also deserves credit for the fact that a Duke offense that looked nigh unstoppable in the first half had two good drives all of the second half. His staff’s defensive adjustments kept UNC in the game.

But the fourth quarter collapses really need to stop, and that doesn’t just mean “play better in the fourth quarter.” Fedora’s quick offense basically necessitates that his teams will be tired near the end of games. The hope is that a) the other team is just as tired, and b) they’ve distanced themselves enough for some breathing room. Fedora isn’t managing his leads very well. As soon as UNC took the lead, the offense slowed down.

The play calls were predictable, Surratt’s protection was basic and easily overpowered, and there frequently wasn’t even a big-play option. This stifled the offense, and while the defense was doing its job and maintaining the lead, the offense couldn’t capitalize, and then when the lead was lost, it panicked. That’s bad coaching. The resulting pick-6 is on Surratt, but that position, with a desperate, panicking freshman QB, could and should have been avoided.

And after that, the play calling just got bizarre. With two minutes left, a screen on 2nd and 20 when those hadn’t worked all game? And then a quick designed 7-yard pass on 3nd and 18? Fortunately, Surratt scrambled out of trouble on 4th down and found a previously invisible Brandon Fritts for 18 yards. And then, with less than a minute left and the ball in the red zone, Fedora chose to design a swing pass that called for Roscoe Johnson to run backwards to avoid defenders, which predictably resulted in lost yardage.

Instead of taking a field goal then, however, and trying to give the offense enough time to try and replicate its 1st-half-closing heroics, Fedora decided to go for the end zone 3 more times, so that even if they had scored, the Heels would’ve had less than 20 seconds and no timeouts to get into field goal range, with a relatively untested kicker. That’s indicative of either a lack of awareness or having given up, and I want neither of those from my team’s coach.

For the first time since I can remember, Fedora took blame for this loss immediately after. I actually disagree; execution on offense was the primary culprit. But this gives me more hope than I’ve ever had that Fedora might use this game as a learning opportunity for himself. So it’s not all bad.