The Hoos and Heels face off for the 120th time this weekend in Chapel Hill. All time, the Hoos are 7 games under .500 versus the Heels, which includes 5 straight losses, including a heartbreaking 28-27 loss last year. For all the handwringing about the Hoos 10 game losing streak to the Hokies, Mike London's 0-5 record against the Heels is just as bad.
In last year's game, the Hoos outgained the Heels by 69 yards. They dominated time of possession by more than 15 minutes. They converted 50% of their third downs (and held UNC to just 35%). But, they still lost due to a combination of turnovers, penalties, big plays and special teams letdowns. The Tar Heels scored on plays of 52 yards, 57 yards and 62 yards. And, of course, the play of the game was the onsides kick that the Tar Heels recovered after taking the lead with about 2 minutes remaining.
At 2-4, with 3 home games remaining, the Hoos need to win a game on the road at some point if they are to play in a bowl game. So, why not this week?
If you're reading this, you likely already know that T.J. Thorpe is now a WR for the Hoos. Other than him, however, UNC returns all of the skill position players from last year's game. Mack Hollins, who had 2 long TD receptions, returns. Ryan Switzer, who had 82 all-purpose yards, returns. Of course, QB Marquis Williams returns. Even Trubisky is back. RB T.J. Logan returns, but he may not get many carries, because Elijah Hood has replaced him as the Heels' lead back.
For a team with a returning QB possessing the résumé that Williams has, it may be surprising that the Heels have become a running team. A year ago, the Heels threw 509 passes with just 496 runs. That's not a bad ratio, but keep in mind that many of those runs were either run/pass options for Williams or scrambles/sacks by Williams. In other words, the Heels were a passing team last year. Williams threw for over 3000 yards, while Logan led all RBs with just 582 rushing yards (Williams had 788 rushing yards).
So far this year, the Heels have thrown 169 passes and rushed 213 times. Williams has thrown for just 1127 yards. Last year, the Heels were 45th in the nation in total offense. They were 27th in the nation in passing, but just 81st in rushing. They were also 48th in passing efficiency. This year, they are 21st in the nation. They are 20th in rushing and 34th in passing. And they are 10th in passing efficiency.
The reason for this change is Elijah Hood. Last year, as a true freshman, Hood had 67 carries for 259 yards and 4 TDs in 9 games. This year, Hoos was the starter from day one. He rushed for 138 yards on just 13 carries in the season opener against South Carolina. Considering the Heels lost by just 4 points despite 3 INTs from Williams, it is likely that Hood did not touch the ball enough in that game. Perhaps if he has a few more carries, especially in the red zone, the Heels win that game. They would be sitting at 6-0 and would almost definitely be ranked.
Hood was one of the top RB recruits in the nation last year. He's big (6'0" 220), fast (4.4-4.5) and he's a punishing runner. He's not the quickest of backs, he's not going to dance around and he's not going to make defenders miss. What he will do is get north-south as soon as possible and hit the holes hard. He's a between the tackles runner who isn't going down from arm tackles and likely isn't going down one-on-one versus most DBs. The Hoos will need to focus their efforts first and foremost on stopping Hood.
Of course, focusing on Hood will open things up for Williams, UNC's enigmatic QB. He's going to go down as perhaps the best QB UNC has ever had. He's 4th all-time in passing yards, passing TDs, pass attempts and pass completions. He's not likely to move up in any of those categories, because the players above him are all well above him. However, when you add in his rushing yards, it becomes a different story. He broke the single season total yardage record last year, with 3856. Even though his production has dropped this year, he's still on pace to break the career record for total yardage. He also holds the top 2 spots for single game total offense. He's also about to break the record for TDs (total responsible for). He's rushed for 27 TDs, thrown for 46 and even has 3 TD receptions. That total of 76 is only 3 behind the school record. He's also just 85 yards away from 2000 yards rushing, and holds the UNC record for rushing yards by a QB.
Williams, though, is also tied with T.J. Yates for the most career INTs by a UNC QB. Yates, though, attempted nearly 500 more passes to get to that INT total. And that has been Williams' problem throughout his career. He's immensely talented and his ability to win a game with either his arm or his legs is maybe unmatched in the nation right now. But sometimes, he has trouble getting past his talent. He thinks he can make every throw, complete every pass. His decision making, at times, leaves something to be desired. And, frankly, hasn't improved much in 3 years. It may be that turning the Heels offense into a run-first offense ultimately makes Williams better. It has certainly made the overall offense better.
UNC also has as good a WR corps as anybody in the country. Last year, Ryan Switzer led the team with 61 receptions for 757 yards. Bug Howard was 2nd with 42-455. Quinshod Davis was 3rd with 41-470. And Mack Hollins was 4th with 35-613. All 4 of those guys are still there and are still the top 4 on the team in receiving, though Davis is on top now. Hollins is the big play guy who torched the Hoos last year and is averaging nearly 25 yards per reception thus far. UNC also has Austin Proehl, son of Ricky Proehl (a 17 year NFL WR) who has stepped up this year. Not many teams go 5 deep with potential NFL WRs.
Even going 5 deep at WR isn't enough for the Heels. They also have a senior TE in Kendrick Singleton. Singleton doesn't get many passes thrown his way, just 13 last year and 6 so far this year. But he is dangerous and needs to be accounted for.
As you'd expect from the #21 offense in the nation, the Tar Heels have a solid OL. The unit is led by senior RG Landon Turner, who has made 34 starts in his career and may be the first interior OL taken in the NFL draft next year, and RT Jon Heck, who is the son of former Virginia assistant coach and current OL coach for the KC Chiefs, Andy Heck. LG Caleb Peterson, LT John Ferranto and OC Lucas Cowley are all very good as well. Ferranto has been dealing with injuries this year and missed the first two games. He's listed as OR on the depth chart with sophomore Bentley Spain.
The Hoos have faced some very good offenses this year. UCLA, Notre Dame and Boise State are all ranked in the top 25 nationally in total offense. UNC is as good as any of them. The Hoos inability to shut down Pitt and Syracuse, who are ranked in the bottom 25 nationally makes it seem unlikely that they'll have any success this week. UNC can beat you in many ways, and the Hoos have not shown the ability to shut down versatile offenses this year. If the Hoos are able to slow down Elijah Hood's running, then they'll likely struggle with Marquis Williams' scrambling ability. And even if they can slow down the running game completely, Williams has the ability to beat the Hoos with deep passes.
If Coach Tenuta insists on sending extra pressure over and over again, Williams and his WR corps are going to beat the Hoos deep. This is the week to dial down the pressure defense and give his CBs a chance to make some plays. Williams will make mistakes, but most of those mistakes are poor reads or decisions. He doesn't make physical mistakes. Even if the Hoos are able to get pressure, his ability to get out of the pocket and make plays with his feet is better than any QB the Hoos have faced this year. He had a 52 yard TD run last year against the Hoos and he could easily do something like that again.
This is a terrible matchup for a struggling Wahoo defense. UNC averages 40 points per game, although the competition does leave something to be desired (40+ points against North Carolina A&T, Illinois, Delaware and Wake Forest). The Gamecocks held them to just 13 points in their lone loss, and that isn't exactly a great defense. Still, holding them to 30 or less this week would be a good performance. The Hoos had trouble stopping Eric Dungey and Syracuse on the read option, and UNC has certainly seen that on film. The Heels run a fair amount of read option out of the pistol formation, which is similar to what the Orange did. Expect to see a lot of that this week, but Marquis Williams and Elijah Hood are better at it than Dungey and Jordan Fredericks are.
Player to Watch
#20 RB Elijah Hood - As I discussed above, it seems strange to turn a team's offense over to a sophomore RB when the QB is a record-setting senior in his 3rd year at the helm. But that is what Larry Fedora has done, and it has turned this offense from a good one into a potentially great one. By providing Marquis Williams with a power running game, it has turned him into a more effective QB.
Teams were always wary of blitzing Williams, because if he avoids that initial rush, he could run a long way. But now you can't just sit back on Williams, because Hood is so dangerous once he gets a head of steam. Sit back on him and he'll pick up 10 yards on every carry. So that means you have to attack Hood, which gives Williams easier reads in the secondary. Last week against Wake Forest, UNC scored on passes of 57 yards, 61 yards and 42 yards. And Hood scored on a 36 yard run.
UNC's offense is one of the top units in the nation and Elijah Hood may be the biggest reason why.
It is a good thing UNC's offense is so good, because their defense isn't. Sure, their 35th ranking looks good, but keep in mind that they've played 2 FCS teams as well as Wake Forest and South Carolina, both in the bottom third of the nation in total offense. The Heels rank 3rd nationally in passing yards allowed and 13th in passing efficiency defense. That is impressive, especially considering they've been leading for so much of the season (requiring teams to pass to catch up). But they are 112th nationally in rush yards given up. Some of that comes from facing Georgia Tech's triple option, but actually they held the Jackets to 30 yards below their season average. Delaware, however, rushed for 279 yards against the Heels, and South Carolina ran for 254.
So, could this be the week that the Hoos "power rushing" game comes to life? Maybe.
UNC's defense is probably one of the slower units the Hoos will see this year. They are big up front, averaging 280 yards on the DL. But those big guys aren't able to generate much of a pass rush. The Heels have just 4 sacks on the season, and all 4 come from the DL. But 2 of them came from DE Junior Gnonkonde, and they were both on the same drive in the 2nd half of last week's Wake Forest which was no longer in doubt. Of the starting DL, only Mikey Bart has a sack, and it came late in the season opener against South Carolina. Gnonkonde plays in a lot of nickel situations and leads the team in TFLs.
The LBs are led by MLB Jeff Schoettmer, who has seemingly been UNC's MLB forever. He's the best playmaker the Heels have on defense. He's a decent run stopper, but he's at his best in the underneath zone coverages in the middle of the field. He has good instincts for the pass and he covers ground well. Next to Schoettmer is SLB Shakeel Rashad. He's the closest thing they have to a pass rushing LB and he leads the team with 3 forced fumbles. He's the guy the Hoos will need to watch for on passing downs, because UNC Defensive Coordinator Gene Chizik will send him on a variety of blitzes.
The strength of this UNC defense, though, is the secondary. They will spend a fair amount of time in nickel packages, though their base defense is a standard 4-3 defense. The leading tackler is sophomore SS Donnie Miles, and he's a guy who will come up and lay a big hit on a DB. He's a solid tackler, but he is a bit of a liability in pass coverage. FS Sam Smiley, on the other hand, is a very good cover guy but not as aggressive coming up against the run.
The CBs, Des Lawrence and M.J. Stewart are both bigger CBs, but not the fleetest of DBs. In other words, they match up well with most of the Hoos' WRs. This could be a good time for David Eldridge III to get back into the mix. He and fellow true freshman Olamide Zaccheaus are among the fastest guys on the team, and they could have success on deep routes against the UNC CBs. And, of course, T.J. Thorpe would love to have a big game against his former teammates.
One of the problems for the Hoos has been keeping Matt Johns on his feet. Against UCLA, Boise State and Pitt, he was often running for his life as soon as he dropped back. Against UNC's defense, that shouldn't be a problem, as they simply do not bring pressure all that often. What they do is stay home, and try to avoid giving up big plays. This is almost exactly the opposite of the Hoos defense.
The Hoos want to use the run to open up the pass. If they can get Miles and Smiley involved in stopping the run, they may be able to get a play action pass over the top. UNC has struggled to stop the run, giving up 4.5 yards per carry. The Hoos, on the other hand, are averaging around 3.3 yards per carry. If the Hoos are unable to run the ball, and forced to rely (once again) on Matt Johns' arm, they could have trouble. UNC is going to play a lot of zone, and while they'll give up the short pass, the intermediate passes that Johns has relied on will not be there. That means a lot of dump offs for Smoke Mizzell, and UNC's LBs and DBs are all very strong tacklers. The screens and flare passes to the RBs will not work this week, which doesn't mean that Coach Fairchild won't run them anyway.
Player to Watch
#10 MLB Jeff Schoettmer - As mentioned above, the Hoos are going to need to run the ball to win this game. The Heels have struggled to stop the run, and yet have been able to come out on top in 5 out of 6 games. A big reason for that is their offense, of course. But the defense hasn't given up big plays, has capitalized on opponent mistakes, and they tackle well.
Schoettmer is the leader of the defense and he's the guy the Hoos need to look out for. He's the guy who's going to read the screen pass to Smoke Mizzell and snuff it out before it gets going. He's also the guy who will come up and shut down the dive plays that Fairchild loves to run on short yardage.
The Hoos best success running the ball this year has been to the perimeter with Smoke Mizzell and Olamide Zaccheaus. The jet sweeps and such may not work this week, as UNC's defense does not over-pursue. However, a simply off-tackle run with Mizzell could be successful, especially if the Hoos can get a blocker on Schoettmer. Mizzell finally showed the ability to make defenders miss last week, and he may get that chance again this week. But Schoettmer isn't likely to miss tackles, so the Hoos need to keep him out of the play.
UNC WR Ryan Switzer is one of the best punt returners in the history of college football. Beyond that, their special teams is nothing...er...special. They have not allowed a single punt return this year, but their two punters have combined to average just 36 yards per punt. True freshman Hunter Lent has taken over the punting duties of late and he's averaging 42 per punt.
The Hoos have one of the best punters in the nation, at least in terms of distanstace, but he has a tendency to outkick his coverage. They are near the bottom of the nation in punt return defense, and Switzer could make them pay.
Both teams have solid placekickers. UNC fooled the Hoos on a surprise onsides kick last year, and the Hoos have fallen victim to that again this year. But, one would think, that can't happen again. Still, considering the Hoos special teams over the past few years, it wouldn't surprise me too much.
This is not a good matchup for the Hoos. UNC has a big play offense, and the Hoos have been prone to giving up big plays this year. UNC can't stop the run, but the Hoos can't run it. UNC's defense is good at staying home and making tackles, so the screens and quick passes to the RBs aren't likely to be successful. And, of course, we have no faith that the Virginia coaching staff can come up with a game plan to take advantage of UNC's weaknesses.
The Heels are favored by 17-18 points. If the Hoos were at home, and the spread was that high, I would say the Hoos would cover. But, on the road, against this team, I think the Hoos are going to get blown out.
Prediction: Heels 42, Hoos 20