For one, after an East Carolina game plagued with poor effort and execution and in a situation in which Larry Fedora and his staff could have lost the team, UNC clearly continued to fight in this game. Virginia Tech’s offense is not as good as ECU’s, but the defense was still significantly better running to the football and generally playing with the needed level of intensity and pride.
Tar Heel fans also got their first look at what Fedora’s offense will look like with a quarterback more suited for Fedora’s system. Marquise Williams played reasonably well and added a nice spark with his running ability and poise under pressure, though he still needs to get more accurate as a passer. There is no doubt that he looked much more comfortable and poised than Renner has so far this year—Williams looks like he actually believes in what they’re asking him to do—though Renner has still been the significantly more accurate thrower.
Either way, whether Williams or Mitch Trubisky wind up starting next year, the offense will certainly benefit from the presence of a dual threat, and this year’s offense would probably benefit from giving Williams more time even once Renner returns. Young offensive weapons Ryan Switzer, T.J. Logan, Bug Howard, and Khris Francis also continue to impress, again providing hope for the future.
The offensive line also did a reasonably good job against a very good Virginia Tech front, while Williams’s mobility kept Bud Foster from dialing up some of his more exotic looks. The wide receivers, however, continue to be a bit of a disappointment in my view, as they continued to have difficulty getting enough separation downfield. Some of that is surely due to the lack of a running game, which has allowed teams to tee off against the pass, but the receivers still need to be better.
Quinshad Davis in particular needs to get better downfield as the number one option. He has been an outstanding screen receiver (as will be seen again below), but he has struggled to create space on downfield routes much of the year. To my eye, Davis needs to get better at varying his speed during a route to create space, a skill that should come with a little more experience and feel. An offense simply cannot rely on fitting the ball into windows that look like this:
The Tunnel or “Jailbreak” Screen
One of Carolina’s better plays of the afternoon was on a tunnel (AKA “jailbreak”) screen, another staple of Carolina’s screen package designed to take advantage of an especially aggressive defense. This particular play came out of a 2x2 set and went to the short side of the field.
The first keys here are for Williams to hit Quinshad Davis on the move and for the slot receiver to get a good block on the outside defensive back, here actually a linebacker due to Virginia Tech’s inverted cover-2 look out of a 4-2-5 base. Note that the cornerbacks are actually the deep players here, each responsible for half the field deep, while both safeties are close to the line of scrimmage to play the run support and intermediate pass.
The right tackle is the only offensive lineman who will continue to pass block, as his responsibility is to keep the defensive end from getting his hands up into the passing lane. Each of the other linemen will hold their block for a moment and then release downfield with a specific target as diagramed above.
This call could not be made if the corner was tight on the line of scrimmage, but against this kind of inverted coverage with a lot of bodies between the hashes, it’s a very solid call. Kendrick Singleton makes an excellent block from the slot and creates the needed space for Davis, while Williams remains poised and makes a catchable throw.
Left guard Caleb Peterson makes a key play here as he recognizes that the right defensive tackle (98) has diagnosed the screen and peels back to prevent him from coming flat down the line to make the tackle. That ensures Davis will have space to get up to speed coming into the secondary.
From there, it’s simply an open-field situation with the other linemen getting downfield and creating a seam, with James Hurst in particular flashing his athleticism by cut blocking the corner in the open field—a difficult thing for any player, let alone a big tackle. This was a well-timed call and was extremely well executed against a solid defense.
Regrouping in the Bye: Reexamining Expectations
In the preseason, we discussed what reasonable expectations for this team might look like, coming to the following win shares:
Those expectations were based on expectations of a slight improvement from an offense returning a senior quarterback and a host of receivers familiar with the system and improvement from a defense that struggled at times last year but returned everyone in the secondary and several good players on the defensive line.
Unfortunately, neither has happened. The offense has not regrouped from the losses of Gio Bernard and three offensive linemen as well as I (and many others) expected, regressing a full yard from 6.44 yards per play against FBS competition (15th nationally) to 5.44 YPP (70th). The defense, meanwhile, has gone from allowing 5.44 YPP (66th) last year to 5.62 YPP (75th) so far this year.
Those numbers are not quite as bad as they appear given how front loaded the schedule has been; they will surely improve in the second half of the schedule, particularly on defense. (I still expect the defense to wind up with slightly better numbers compared to last year.) Nevertheless, these numbers make it clear that this team—absent Bernard, Jonathan Cooper, Sly Williams, Kevin Reddick, and other key contributors from last year—is quite simply not as good as last year’s squad.
Knowing what we now know about this team, a few probabilities need to be adjusted down for the rest of the year. I’d now consider Miami about 60 percent likely to win that game, and a road game against a good Pitt team is probably a coin flip. I’d now put the following forward as reasonable expectations for the second half of the season:
That makes a 6-6 (4-4) season the most likely outcome from here, obviously a far cry from the 9-3/8-4 (5-3) expectations based on hypothetical improvements at the beginning of the year, with the unexpected loss to ECU obviously the biggest disappointment. Teams typically improve in the second year in a new system, but this year shows that it’s hard to get better when you lose your best players and don’t have comparable replacements waiting in the wings.