True freshmen T.J. Logan and Ryan Switzer each contributed a special teams return for a touchdown, with Switzer tying the NCAA single-season mark for punt return scores. Together with a solid day from the defense, those explosive plays were the difference, giving Carolina a comfortable lead from which it would not look back.
Defense: Key Sacks the Difference
The defense held the Cincinnati spread attack well below its season average (vs. FBS) of 5.96 yards per play and 29.3 points per game, holding the Bearcats to 4.85 YPP and 17 points. Reducing an opponent's offensive output by 19% is outstanding, and the Heels' defense was actually better against the Bearcats than Louisville's higher-regarded outfit, which allowed 5.54 YPP and 24 points to Cincinnati.
That defensive effort was keyed by five sacks, each of which came at a critical juncture, none more so than the safety shared by Kareem Martin and Brandon Ellerbe, which also set up Logan's touchdown return. Those sacks helped overcome Carolina's difficulty stopping the run in this game, as the Bearcats rushed for 7.71 YPC not including sacks.
Those sacks were again largely the result of something we highlighted in this column earlier in the year: disguising the blitz and then overloading one side of the offensive line, bringing more rushers than the offense could block on one side while not leaving the secondary vulnerable by bringing too many rushers.
On the safety, Carolina only brought four rushers, but did it out of a three-man defensive front and bluffed a middle blitz to occupy another blocker. Below, you can see Ellerbe preparing to come off the edge, but Ryan Mangum (lined up at middle linebacker) is also pressing the line of scrimmage as though he is about to come up the middle.
Mangum drops to take away any quick pass over the middle, but his bluff still occupies the center (circled below), who is then too slow to get to the left to help against Ellerbe's looping blitz while Martin occupies both the guard and center, making an outstanding athletic play by splitting the block and getting to the quarterback.
The combination of pressure up the middle from Ellerbe and Martin coming free from the left is too much, leading to the safety. This is a great example of the Carolina defense using disguise and movement to produce pressure without putting its secondary in a bind.
Offense Consistent, But Still Lacks Big Plays
The one negative in this game comes from the offense's continued difficulty producing big plays, as the Heels' longest play from scrimmage was 25 yards, a big factor in the offense only managing 4.37 YPP. That's actually less than Cincinnati's season average of 4.77 YPP and less than the Bearcats managed against the UNC defense.
While Eric Ebron's out-of-character drop on a long pass play certainly impacts those numbers, altering this season-long trend and adding an explosive element to the offense will be crucial to taking the next step forward in 2014.
The primary cause for this lack of big plays on the season has actually been in the running game, as becomes evident upon breaking down the frequency of long runs in the Carolina offense, displayed in the table below:
The drop off is dramatic, especially once beyond the 20-yard mark. As a rule, the offensive line is responsible for tackles for a loss and the first 3–4 yards of a run, and playing a better slate of defensive lines, the 2013 offensive line actually allowed a remarkably similar number of tackles for loss per game (6.08, 60th) compared to 2012 (5.55, 58th), suggesting that the offensive line was not the problem in the lack of explosiveness in the running game.
The ball carrier is typically responsible for the next 5–10 yards of a run. Obviously no one needs to be reminded how significant Gio Bernard was to Carolina's offensive success in 2012, but these numbers further highlight Bernard's excellence and how badly he was missed in 2013, as the 29% reduction in 10+ yard runs points directly to that position.
Downfield blocking is, however, usually the difference between a 15-yard run and something much longer, and the biggest drop off in 2013 was in that department. It is not as though Romar Morris or Logan lack home-run speed, but it's pretty clear they did not have the same kinds of running lanes once they got to the secondary that Bernard enjoyed in 2012.
Consistent downfield blocking from the Carolina receiving crew will have to be a major emphasis throughout the offseason, spring practices, and summer camp, as restoring the big play to the running game will also further open up the play-action passing game and thereby help produce even more explosive plays.
Nevertheless, in spite of its inability to produce big plays, the Carolina offense was remarkably consistent throughout this game, with only five negative plays out of 79. This was especially evident as the Heels were able to chip away at the Bearcat defense on the 15-play, 74-yard fourth quarter drive that put the game away in the fourth quarter. Cincinnati simply could not keep the Heels from getting first downs in this game.
If Carolina can pair that consistency with better downfield blocking and more explosive plays in 2014, the future will be quite bright on the offensive side of the ball.