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UNC’s tricks work against Virginia

It was close for a while on Saturday. North Carolina and Virginia were tied at 7 during the final minutes of the first half, and the Cavaliers had some momentum, and hope, after they successfully executed a trick play out of a wild formation after first lining up for a field goal.

To that point, it had been something of a slog for the Tar Heels. Four of their first four drives had ended without points. Now they were in danger of entering halftime tied with a team UNC expected to beat without too much of a struggle.

You know what happened next. The Tar Heels answered trickery with trickery. Mitch Trubisky’s 40-yard touchdown pass to Bug Howard – a pass that came after T.J. Logan, the senior running back, had lined up at quarterback – turned the game in UNC’s favor.

And, as we’re wont to do the day after games, a look back:

THE GOOD

The Tar Heels continued their success with trick plays: What is it about UNC coach Larry Fedora and trick plays? They’ve been a constant under Fedora, now in his fifth season, and again on Saturday UNC used some deception at just the right moment. Trubisky’s touchdown pass, which came after receiver Ryan Switzer tossed the ball back to the quarterback, was a catalyst for an offense that had labored through much of the first half.

UNC has used trick plays routinely under Fedora. Surprise onside kicks. Flea flickers. Wide receiver passes. The one the Tar Heels used on Saturday, though, was relatively rare. Fedora said UNC last tried it in 2014, at Notre Dame, and he was confident in its chances because he doubted Virginia had seen it on film or studied it.

Elijah Hood found his groove: It hasn’t been the kind of junior season for Hood that everyone expected – including himself. And yet on Saturday he looked a lot like his old self, at last, while he ran for 107 yards on 16 yards, one of which ended with a 4-yard touchdown run that gave UNC a 7-0 lead late in the first quarter.

Hood acknowledged afterward that his health has limited his productivity. He endured a concussion during the victory at Florida State earlier this month. He missed UNC’s next game, the defeat against Virginia Tech. His recovery has been a process. His performance on Saturday was a positive step.

The Tar Heels’ defense continued its upward trajectory: Virginia doesn’t exactly have the ACC’s best offense, to put it kindly. To put it less kindly: The Cavaliers are a bad offensive football team, especially with the run. And so UNC’s defense should have had success on Saturday, and it did.

The Tar Heels’ defense did what a good defense should do against a bad offense: it basically shut it down. UNC stopped Virginia on 16 of 19 third downs. The Tar Heels held the Cavaliers to an average of 3 yards per play. UNC allowed a season-low 110 yards rushing and forced Virginia to punt 10 times.

Again, the performance needs context. UNC didn’t stop the Bill Walsh/Joe Montana 49ers on Saturday. But the Tar Heels continue to improve defensively, and they’re at the point now where strong defensive performances are expected against weaker offensive teams. That’s a relatively new development.

THE NOT SO GOOD

The offense sputtered through much of the first half: The Tar Heels finished with 488 yards on Saturday and averaged 7.3 yards per play, and it’s difficult to criticize that kind of efficiency. Beyond the usually-strong numbers, though, the offense faltered early on, and really didn’t get going until that trick play a few minutes before halftime.

Before that, UNC had failed to score on four of its first drives. One of those drives ended with Logan’s fumble inside the Virginia 5-yard line, and that turnover clearly took points off the board. That fumble came after UNC’s first two drives ended in punts.

UNC’s most successful drive of the first half was the one that ended with Trubisky’s 40-yard touchdown pass to Howard. The Tar Heels found their offensive rhythm in the third quarter, but Trubisky and his teammates were disappointed they didn’t get going sooner.

THE UGLY

UNC fell victim to trickery from the other side: Yes, Fedora considered a calling a timeout when Virginia lined up in a wild formation with about 5½ minutes to play in the second quarter. The Cavaliers switched into that alignment after first lining up in the field-goal formation.

So why didn’t UNC call a timeout? Fedora provided a humorous explanation.

“I did consider calling the timeout,” he said. “In fact, I was going to call a timeout and the defense said, ‘We got this.’ And we did – we had practiced it.”

The defense, as it turned out, did not have this. The Cavaliers successfully executed the play, which ended in Matt Johns’ 11-yard touchdown pass to Evan Butts, the tight end who had snapped the ball (and snapped it backyard, touch football style, by the way).

The Tar Heels thought they were ready to defend that play. They’d studied it on film. There was a breakdown, though, and Butts ran open down the field and scored easily.

THE LOOK AHEAD

After playing the first eight consecutive weeks of the season, UNC will rest – at least for a little while – this week. The Tar Heels are off next weekend. Fedora said he’d give his players off on Sunday and Monday, before resuming practice on Tuesday.

UNC can use the extra time to prepare for a challenging stretch when it resumes play. The Tar Heels play Georgia Tech at home on Nov. 5, and then travel to Duke on Nov. 10, a Thursday night. After that, the last remaining ACC game is against N.C. State in late November.

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