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North Carolina Report Card: Special Teams Continue To Be Anything But

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The defense remains the star of this show.

Virginia v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Despite completely dominating Saturday’s game statistically, the Virginia Cavaliers needed some late heroics from the defense to pull off the road win over rival North Carolina Tar Heels.

The Hoos outgained the Heels 405-257. They won the turnover battle 3-1. They held the ball for nearly 40 minutes of game-time. So why was the game so close in the 4th quarter? What could the Wahoos have done better to break the game open?

Let’s take a look.

Offense

The offense this week was good, but not great, as they struggled for much of the game to create the dynamic plays that we’ve seen all season. A lot of that was UNC’s game plan as the Tar Heels played a bit of a shell defensively, trying to keep everything in front of them. This explains why the Hoos were fairly efficient, averaging over 5 yards per play.

Jordan Ellis was a beast, rushing for a career best 136 yards on 27 carries. In doing so, he had just one carry for loss, a strange call of a play involving a wide third down run at the goal line on the Hoos’ first scoring drive. Ellis, who had been very successful running between the tackles up to that point, is typically not a burner, and he really excels when he has his shoulders facing downhill. Getting him on the edge in that situation didn’t seem to make a lot of sense. Daniel Hamm or Olamide Zaccheus would make more sense for that play.

Kurt Benkert was also efficient, completing over 60% of his passes and averaging over 8 yards per attempt.

The problems, offensively, were on third down. Virginia completed just 4/16 on 3rd down, which helps explain why the Hoos scored only 20 points; Virginia’s lone TD drive did not feature a single 3rd down. That’s one way to avoid 3rd down problems.

The final problem was some decision making from Coach Mendenhall. The Hoos went 3/3 on 4th down attempts, but they also punted twice from inside the UNC 40 yard line, and kicked 2 FGs from inside the UNC 10 yard line. Yes, it is difficult to convert on 4th and 19, and yes Lester Coleman seems to be very good at the pooch kick. But punting from the positive-33 yard line is almost never a good idea.

Grade: B

Defense

For the second week in a row, the Cavalier defense held the opposition to just over 250 yards. In today’s college football, that is amazing. North Carolina doesn’t have a good offense this year, but they still came into the game averaging almost 400 yards per game. They came into the game averaging 240 passing yards per game, but totaled only 46 against the Hoos. On three interceptions, Virginia DBs had 56 return yards. QB Brandon Harris completed under 40% of his passes. He averaged under 3 yards per attempt.

The run defense wasn’t quite as solid, allowing 211 yards rushing. Freshman Michael Carter had 157 yards for the Heels. Still, 103 yards of that came on 2 rushes. On 31 other carries, the Heels averaged just less than 3.5 yards per carry.

Of course, you can try to separate out the big plays, but they still happened. Did UNC discover a crack in the Wahoo defense? Was it a missed assignment? Was it just a great play by the offense?

The Hoos will need answer those questions this week, because Boston College freshman RB A.J. Collins ran over, around and through the Louisville defense last week for 272 yards and 4 TDs.

Grade: A-

Special Teams

Once again, the Cavaliers’ special teams was far from special. The placekicking unit was perfect, again. A.J. Mejia was 2/2 on FGs and 2/2 on PATs.

The Hoos did not attempt a punt return, but both of Joe Reed’s kickoff returns failed to reach the 20 yard line. That is unacceptable when a touchback brings the ball out to the 25.

But those aren’t really the problems. The problems, once again, are in defending the returns. Specifically the punt returns. UNC’s M.J. Stewart had a 31 yard return early in the game. Thankfully, it did not end up making any difference, as the Wahoo defense forced a 3-and-out on the ensuing drive. But those types of plays change field position, and often change games. The coaching staff needs to get the coverage units improving.

Grade: D

Highlight

It seems like every week we could talk about the defense. This defense is playing really good football right now. Even with the two long TDs allowed, the defense was outstanding this week. Last week, we focused on Micah Kiser and the LBs. This week, we’re going to look at the DBs, which allowed just 46 passing yards and forced three INTs.

Ball disruption has been a big part of the success this year. Virginia is 15th in the nation in turnover margin. They’re just 56th in turnovers forced, but that is still a huge improvement over last year, when the Hoos were 88th.

Last year, the Hoos totaled 9 INTs, which was 81st in the nation. Through 6 games, the Hoos have already equaled those 9 INTs, and are 12th in the nation.

Obviously, Quin Blanding is the star of the defensive backfield. He’s second on the team with 61 tackles. He’s also closing in on Jamie Sharper’s school record for career tackles. Blanding, of course, had the big pick-6 last week.

But Blanding isn’t the only DB shining this year. Redshirt freshman Brenton Nelson leads the team with 3 INTs. CB-turned-Safety-turned-CB Juan Thornhill leads the team with 6 passes defended. And sophomore CB Bryce Hall has been so good that he’s just not seeing any passes thrown his way.

All three of those guys came up big this week. Nelson and Hall had big INTs. And Thornhill had a TD saving tackle on Michael Carter’s first long run. Sure, it didn’t matter too much since Carter scored two plays later. But it shows the effort that this entire defense is bringing on every play. Watch this play. Thornhill is 7 yards behind Carter as the RB gets into the open field. Thornhill sprinted 35 yards and caught him. That’s hustle.

Grade: A