October 25, 2013

UNC football at the midpoint: What went right, what went wrong

A look at the good and the bad from the Tar Heels' 1-5 start. Not even the most pessimistic of pessimists could have envisioned this. The goal of winning the ACC's Coastal Division? Gone. But finish 6-6 - which might be the ceiling - and UNC could still manage to put a positive spin on a season that already appears lost.

I meant to post this earlier in the week but, hey, I’ve been working on a project or two. And let’s face it, folks, there’s just not a lot of demand right now for stories about North Carolina football. Been that kind of season so far for the Tar Heels.

We’re at the midpoint of the season and UNC is 1-5. Not even the most pessimistic of pessimists could have envisioned this. The goal of winning the ACC’s Coastal Division? Gone. The hope of improving on the 8-4 finish from a season ago? Gone. The chance to make a statement on national TV against name opponents? No more.

Before the season began, it would have been difficult to imagine a worse worst-case scenario than the one UNC finds itself in now. The good news for the Tar Heels? They still have an opportunity to finish strongly, at least. And that’s important, I’d argue.

Finish 6-6 – which I think at this point is about the ceiling – and UNC could still manage to put a positive spin on a season that already appears lost. And even if the Tar Heels don’t finish the regular season with a .500 record, there’s still a big difference between, say, 5-7 and 2-10. Both would be disappointing for a team that began the season with the kind of aspirations that UNC did. But one record still looks less disastrous than the other.

How UNC plays on Saturday against Boston College should tell us a lot about whether the Tar Heels have enough left in them for a turnaround. But enough about the future. Let’s look back at what’s gone right (and there have been a couple of things here and there) and what’s gone wrong.

We’ll start with the good.

Things that have gone right for UNC at the midpoint:

1. Eric Ebron has played well

He’s on pace for six touchdowns – half of what coach Larry Fedora set as the goal for Ebron before the season – but nonetheless, Ebron has been perhaps the Tar Heels’ brightest bright spot. He has 31 catches for 532 yards and three touchdowns, and is averaging 88.7 receiving yards per game. The highlight for him came last week against Miami, when Ebron set a school record for a tight end with 199 yards receiving. It’s fair to say that Ebron isn’t expected to return for his senior season, so his time at UNC is likely limited. In other words, Tar Heels enthusiasts should enjoy watching him while he’s still around.

2. Marquise Williams has shown promise

Williams, who in 2011 arrived at UNC as a highly-rated recruit from Charlotte, wasn’t enrolled in school in the spring because of academic reasons and there were questions about whether he’d ever play a meaningful role for the Tar Heels. But he has responded well to the adversity. The highlight for Williams, the third-year sophomore quarterback, came in the 27-17 loss at Virginia Tech. On his 21st birthday, he made his first career start and threw for 277 yards and ran for 56. Williams still looks raw as a passer – he has thrown three interceptions in the past two games – but he’ll continue to see some time behind Bryn Renner and, who knows, maybe Williams does enough to cement himself as the leader of the offense going forward. (Though Mitch Trubisky, the freshman, will have something to say about that.)

3. The Tar Heels haven’t given up, at least.

The 55-31 defeat against East Carolina can’t be discounted, of course, but outside of that UNC has at least played with energy and effort. The Tar Heels haven’t always played well, but they’ve at least played hard – the ECU game notwithstanding. That said, what happened in the ECU game is difficult to describe. UNC simply didn’t show up and A.J. Blue, one of the team’s senior leaders, accused his teammates of not taking the Pirates seriously. That’s disturbing. That mentality might make sense at some places, but UNC isn’t one of them. The Tar Heels are hardly in a position to take opponents lightly.

I’m trying to think of some more positives and I can’t, really.

So onto the

Things that have gone wrong for UNC at the midpoint:

1. The offensive line and the running game haven’t developed

It’s fair to combine these issues because they’re so connected. A running game often is only as good as its offensive line, and UNC’s hasn’t been good this season. Of all the things that have gone wrong for UNC, the offensive line’s struggles might be hurting the Tar Heels the most. In hindsight, maybe we should have seen this coming. UNC had to replace three offensive linemen who became NFL draft picks, after all, and one of them, Jonathan Cooper, might have been the best lineman in school history. Filling those voids has proven more difficult than anyone seemed to anticipate. The Tar Heels allowed 11 sacks a season ago, which ranked tied for ninth nationally. This year, they’ve already allowed 13 sacks. The pass protection has been spotty -- and that clearly has affected Renner and the passing game -- and the line has done little to help UNC’s running backs.

Which brings us to the other half of this equation. No one expected UNC to replace Giovani Bernard with a single player. But, entering the season, Fedora expressed optimism that, combined, A.J. Blue, Romar Morris, Khris Francis and T.J. Logan could account for the loss of Bernard. But it hasn’t happened that way. Not even close. The running back corps has dealt with some injury problems at times but, overall, the foursome just hasn’t produced. Game-changing plays have been few and far between. The long-play threat that UNC had a season ago with Bernard has completely disappeared. Logan, the freshman from Greensboro, has shown promise of late after returning from a knee injury, but at this point we know what to expect from UNC’s running game: Not much. The Tar Heels are averaging 100.8 rushing yards per game, which ranks 114th nationally. There hasn’t been any indication that will improve much through the second half of the season.

2. The defense continues to be a mess.

UNC has allowed an average of 456 yards per game, which ranks 106th nationally. No one expected this to even be a good defense, but the Tar Heels have been worse defensively than expected. Allowing big plays, for whatever reason – be it a blown coverage or something else – continues to be a problem. UNC has given up five plays of at least 50 yards, and four of at least 60 yards. The Tar Heels have sacked opposing quarterbacks just 10 times, which ranks tied for 97th nationally, and four of those sacks came against Middle Tennessee State. Outside of the Miami game, when UNC had four takeaways, the Tar Heels also haven’t often forced turnovers. From the defensive line to the secondary, this has just been a bad defense. Not much more you can say. The numbers speak for themselves. UNC ranks 101st nationally in rushing defense, and 90th against the pass. Vic Koenning, the assistant coach most responsible for leading the defense, has also expressed disappointment in a lack of leadership.

3. Self-inflicted wounds, including penalties and strange gaffes

Even in victory, UNC found a way to make news with a bizarre mishap on the coin toss that forced the Tar Heels to kick off to start both halves against Middle Tennessee. That was strange but at least it turned out to be harmless. Not harmless? Having a touchdown called back because of penalty in three consecutive games. In two of those – road losses at Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech – the called-back touchdown played a decisive role in the outcome. UNC has been penalized an average of 63.2 yards per game, which ranks 103rd nationally. One of the Tar Heels’ 45 penalties was a costly delay of game late in the loss against Miami. The delay penalty came on a 3rd-and-inches play with the Tar Heels leading 23-20. Avoid that penalty and continue the drive, the Tar Heels just might win.

So there you have it: Some good. Some bad.

Some more good: UNC still has six more games to atone for what’s transpired during the first six.

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