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Tar Heels catch a break with canceled game

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As eastern North Carolina continues to recover in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, UNC football fans can be thankful for at least one result of the storm: the cancellation of Saturday’s game between Carolina and Central Florida, likely sparing the Tar Heels from another embarrassing loss to a Group of Five program.

Unfortunately for the Tar Heels, Florence afforded no defense against the East Carolina game a week ago. But in fairness to the forces of nature, UNC didn’t offer much defense (or offense) in a humiliating 41–19 loss to the Pirates, either. 

The UNC defense gave up a robust 6.22 yards per play against an ECU offense that had managed only 4.02 YPP in a loss against North Carolina A&T the week prior, and the Tar Heel offense couldn’t get out of neutral against an ECU defensive unit that has been among the nation’s worst over the last few years, finishing dead last in total defense in 2017.

When Carolina finished 109th nationally with 5.02 yards per play and 102nd in points per game (22.5) against FBS competition in 2017, it was easy to place much of the blame on the combination of a young team and an unprecedented number of injuries. But the offense has not shown improvement so far, ranking 109th (4.9 YPP) and 107th in scoring average (18) through two games.

Considering the schedule should only get more difficult from here as the Tar Heels enter conference play, that’s not a good sign for head coach Larry Fedora, who has always taken pride in having outstanding offenses.

NO REPLACEMENT FOR TRUBISKY

While it would be unfair to suggest that Carolina’s problems all fall on the quarterback position, it is surely no coincidence that Carolina’s sudden struggles on offense followed the departure of star quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, now the starting quarterback for the Chicago Bears after being the second overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Between 2014–2016, Trubisky and Marquise Williams combined to throw for a 64.5 percent completion percentage, averaging a healthy 8.0 yards per attempt and just under a 3:1 TD/INT ratio (86/29). 

Through two games in 2018, starter Nathan Elliott is completing only 50.7 percent of his passes, averaging an anemic 4.9 yards per attempt with a 1:4 TD/INT ratio. Those numbers are only slightly down from the 2017 totals (with the exception of a 2:1 TD/INT ratio last season).

The bottom line is that it’s next to impossible to have a good offense in college football without consistently good quarterback play, and UNC has been unable to produce that since Trubisky’s departure. 

Carolina is not alone in having had such difficulties — all one needs to do is look at what has happened to Florida State since Jameis Winston’s early departure to see how even a traditional powerhouse can struggle after not having someone prepared to take over at the most important position in the game.

Regardless of what other fixes need to be made, unless Carolina finds a way to get more efficient play from the quarterback position, it is difficult to see brighter things ahead for this Carolina team. 

Without more efficient play from the quarterback position, this Carolina team — and likely its coaching staff — are in serious trouble. Can freshman Cade Fortin, a spring enrollee who showed good physical talent in the fourth quarter against ECU, or the return of Chazz Surratt from suspension ultimately provide that necessary spark?

CAN’T AFFORD TO PANIC

After showing improvement in the opener against California, the Carolina defense reverted to its 2017 form against a previously underwhelming ECU squad. That said, there were some differences between the defensive struggles early in the game and the lapses that occurred late in the game.

On several occasions early against ECU, Carolina defenders were in position with good technique and simply got beaten by a great throw or circus catch. Combined with the offense’s struggles, those plays seem to have impacted the defense’s collective psyche, as the second half featured numerous missed assignments and “busts” resulting in big plays, none bigger than a long touchdown run on fourth and one early in the fourth quarter.

Carolina’s defensive coaching staff will have to find a way to keep their players bought into the scheme even when things are not going well. The performance against Cal and even early against ECU demonstrated that this Carolina defense has the potential to be a good one, but if defenders continue to freelance like they did in the second half against ECU, a return to something more closely resembling 2017 is not out of the question. 

STAT OF THE WEEK

5.16. That’s UNC’s average yards per carry so far in 2018 — over half a yard better than UNC produced against FBS competition in 2016 (4.55), further underscoring the importance of improving the passing game.

Jason Staples has covered college football since 2007. You can follow him on Twitter @DocStaples and check out more of his work at InsideCarolina.com.

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