Carolina displayed improvement in many areas, but the inconsistency that has cost the Heels a few close games in recent years resurfaced, as a few loose plays in the second and third quarters helped keep the game from being a colossal blowout.
The defense has definitely upgraded athletically over the past two years and should no longer be a weakness this year. The defensive line looked better than I expected, though Liberty’s success on the goal line and in short yardage has to be concerning. Ethan Farmer being eligible is huge, as he got good penetration on several occasions.
It was difficult to evaluate the secondary given the absent starters, but the fact that Carolina was able to absorb those losses and still cover reasonably well is a testament to improved depth in the secondary. Yes, Liberty is an FCS program, but they still have a prolific offense on that level.
Carolina has one of the best backfield stables in the country, and all five backs who played are good enough to start at the FBS level. That said, I expect the rotation to tighten up a bit against better teams, with Fedora going with a “hot hand” approach. Logan seems to be a tick above the others and will consistently get first crack at carries, but it’ll be interesting to see how this rotation shakes out the rest of the year.
The offensive line was surprisingly efficient in both run blocking and pass blocking. The jury is still out until we see them against an FBS defensive line, but the early returns on the 2014 season have to be encouraging up front on offense.
As for the quarterbacks, the results were as mixed as the stat lines would suggest. On the positive side, Marquise Williams’s timing on short and intermediate routes was significantly improved over the spring, and he was more accurate in the short zones than he has been in the past. His decision-making was also solid, even on the two interceptions, which were bad throws rather than poor decisions. His ability to make plays with his feet was another positive as always. Mitch Trubisky was also solid in the short/intermediate zones and continued to demonstrate the anticipation and timing he flashed in the spring.
On the negative side, Williams still struggled to push the ball downfield, as illustrated on both of his interceptions, each of which could have been touchdowns on better throws. Carolina’s longest pass play on the day was 33 yards—and that was a receiver screen to Mack Hollins that scored due to terrific perimeter blocking from Jack Tabb. The 2013 Tar Heels struggled to produce explosive plays, and if the offense is going to be significantly better than last year, Carolina needs to be able to threaten teams over the top. Mechanically, Williams needs to transfer his weight better on downfield throws; at present he hangs back, which causes the ball to float a bit.
Trubisky, on the other hand, did flash the ability to push the ball downfield but was a little less consistent as a decision-maker, forcing a few throws, including the screen pass that was intercepted.
It appeared to me that Trubisky seems to have been pressing a bit at times in the effort to distinguish himself—understandable for the No. 2 guy. The prime example of this was a 3rd and 7 play with about 6 minutes remaining in the second quarter. Each of the outside receivers had a take-off route while Jack Tabb had an “over” route from the slot.
Liberty brings pressure and plays man-to-man in the secondary. UNC picks up the blitz well, however, meaning Tabb’s “over” route should be an easy man-beater for a first down here as Tabb runs through the footprints of the umpire.
Instead of taking the easier throw for the first down, Trubisky takes a shot downfield to the short side of the field, with the throw winding up out of bounds. I don’t mind taking shots downfield—as I said above, UNC needs to find a way to threaten teams downfield—but in this situation, the shorter throw for the first down is the better call, especially since the corners were starting from a significant cushion.
Each quarterback brings both strengths and limitations to the table, which is a big reason they’re both getting time at this point. Trubisky has the higher ceiling as a passer, but Williams showed his experience and was a bit steadier on Saturday.
The bottom line: if the Heels are going to win a division title in 2014, they’re going to need to be able to threaten teams down the field a bit better than they did in this game to create space for the running game and perimeter passing attack.