That said, the plan by the defensive staff was sound. In fact, it was very similar to the plan that led to a Tar Heel victory in 2012 and the one InsideCarolina suggested would be the best approach against Miami. The UNC staff played a lot of soft zone, mostly cover-3 and cover-2, with its safeties extra deep to prevent against the deep ball that had so hurt the Heels this year.
Below, you can see good examples of how the Carolina secondary chose to cover most of the night, including Tre Boston's interception in the red zone in the latter two pictures (take note of how he maintains his depth here):
In the next two shots, you can see one of the other benefits of taking this approach: cover three allows an extra player in the box to stop the run, as observed below in an example leading to a tackle for a loss. Note the outstanding angles taken across the defensive front, as the back has nowhere to go due to the umbrella the defense has built around him.
By Miami's final drive, however, the defensive front had worn down, and Miami was able to simply pound the ball down the field against a UNC defense that could no longer stop the run even with the extra player in the box.
In spite of that failure, the defensive plan largely worked just as it had in 2012. Aside from one long Phillip Dorsett catch resulting from Dominique Green misjudging the ball, the Heels were largely able to limit Miami to the underneath and intermediate passing game while also intercepting four errant passes by Miami quarterback Stephen Morris, who has been inconsistent on intermediate passes all year.
That bend-but-don't-break formula of keeping everything in front of them while forcing offenses to execute all the way down the field is probably the best approach for this defense the rest of the year also. Basically, Carolina needs to play for turnovers and stops in the red zone with less concern about giving up yardage in the middle of the field. They simply do not have the personnel—especially in the back seven—to be able to pressure good offenses without giving up too many big plays.
Ultimately, despite giving up 6.95 yards per play (actually .3 below Miami's FBS average of 7.25 YPP), the Carolina only gave up 27 points on 80 plays from scrimmage while forcing four turnovers. That should be enough to win, but the Tar Heel offense continues to sputter in the red zone, again having to settle for field goals on three trips inside the Hurricane 11 yard line, largely because of a continued inability to run the football (2.92 YPC vs. the 3.64 YPC allowed by UM on the season).
The thing that continues to stick out to me, however, is the poor mechanics displayed by the UNC quarterbacks, Bryn Renner in particular. Take a look at Renner's feet on the following throws:
Note that his feet are parallel to each other, with his hips wide open towards the target. This means there is little or no weight shift towards the target as Renner throws with all arm rather than from the ground up. Compare this to the following shot, taken from his on-target touchdown throw to Quinshad Davis:
Here he has more properly loaded his left side, driving toward the target and putting enough velocity on the ball to throw accurately in the seam between two defenders.
Later in the game, however, we find Renner again throwing from a poor base, with his hips wide open towards the target and very little weight shift:
Although all three of the throws with poor foot mechanics highlighted here were complete, this particular throw provides a good example of just why such little things can matter, as it came on Eric Ebron's spectacular one-handed catch over the middle. That catch needed to be spectacular because the ball was thrown slightly off target, high and behind Ebron.
A more accurate throw would likely have produced a long touchdown, as Miami had rushed six players and was in "zero" coverage with no deep help on the play.
Take a look at how badly Ebron had beaten his man:
If that ball is put out in front of Ebron, there is no one between him and the end zone. Instead, Renner rushed the throw (despite still having plenty of pocket to work with) and made an inaccurate throw that required a great catch and could not produce a big play.
Again, it's these plays on the margins that can cost you games. This was a backbreaking big play waiting to happen and was narrowly missed due to a simple fundamental issue. I'm not exactly sure why we have seen Renner's footwork and mechanics regress this year (though I suspect it's tied to the combination of a young line and trying to play too fast), but these mechanical issues—and whether or not they improve—are definitely something to keep an eye on with UNC quarterbacks moving forward.
Photos by J.B. Cissell