Don’t Blame the 4-2-5
One thing I continue to see brought up among Carolina fans is the idea that the problem with the defense would be solved by moving to a more traditional 4-3 alignment similar to what used in the Butch Davis era.
The problem with this argument is that no 4-3 base team would have stayed in a 4-3 against East Carolina’s Air Raid spread attack. Four and five receiver sets force defenses into nickel and dime looks regardless of what the main depth chart says, and Davis’s defenses would have been in 4-2-5, 4-1-6, and 3-2-6 looks throughout Saturday’s game.
Like it or not, the game has changed rather significantly since 2009, with more and more teams (including UNC) going to up-tempo spread attacks. This means what used to be mostly long-yardage defensive packages are now on the field more often than the “base” packages.
That’s the logic behind all the teams that field a base 4-2-5 or 3-3-5 at this point: they recognize that those packages are on the field more anyway, so might as well admit that’s the base defensive personnel. A partial list of teams that play out of a base Nickel or 4-2-5/3-3-5 at this point: Florida State, Auburn, Virginia Tech, TCU, Kentucky, Georgia Tech, and Ole Miss.
That list includes both participants in the last national championship game and the program that has fielded the most consistently excellent defense in the ACC over the past decade (Virginia Tech). It is evident from even a cursory look around the college football landscape that the problem is not found in which type of depth chart the coaching staff decides to list as the base defense.
It would be one thing if Carolina had faced a power team and simply been blown off the ball. In that case, an argument about how ill suited the 4-2-5 is to stopping that kind of offense might be reasonable. But the Tar Heels moved to a 4-2-5 base to be better equipped to face spread offenses.
Getting Whipped at Your Own Game
And that is the truly concerning thing: North Carolina got whipped by a team running exactly what their defense is most clearly geared to face. As I tweeted during the game, it was shocking how poorly Carolina defended the up-tempo spread despite seeing it every day in practice.
One of the reasons coaches like Nick Saban or Jimbo Fisher give for why they have not moved to an up-tempo spread is that they don’t want to put their defenses at a disadvantage against other offensive schemes. They argue that the defense needs to see traditional offensive looks in practice at some point to be equipped to face the LSUs or Stanfords of the world, so while they have incorporated spread concepts into their schemes, they’ve also tried to retain traditional components.
UNC, Oregon, Texas A&M, and numerous other programs have taken the other approach—embrace the up-tempo spread philosophy and hope the defense can adjust when it faces one of those power teams.
What you don’t expect to see is a spread team getting shredded so badly by another spread team doing what the defense is most accustomed to seeing in practice. But that is precisely what has happened in the last two games against ECU.
It’s one thing to get whipped at your weaknesses. That’s football. Complete teams are exceedingly rare, and you typically have to take risks in the hopes that your strengths can outweigh your weaknesses. But there is little more discouraging than getting hammered in exactly the areas you’re supposed to be strongest. That’s what happened on Saturday.
One thing that stuck out to me in this game was how Carolina lacks difference-makers at linebacker. That made more sense after hearing Vic Koenning’s explanation for why he chose the 3-2-6 look in this game—with Shakeel Rashad, Mikey Bart, and Norkeithus Otis all banged up, he didn’t have a Bandit (rush end) cleared to play until midweek.
Offenses like ECU (and UNC’s own) are designed to put defenses in a bind by forcing them to put smaller players on the field in space, making it more difficult to stop the run after committing so many resources to pass defense. As we have discussed on the IC Radio Podcast in the past, the popularity of this approach has put a premium on hybrid players at the linebacker position who can cover like defensive backs without sacrificing much in the way of size.
In my view, this loss yet again highlighted the lack of a Bruce Carter on this defense. Travis Hughes is the closest thing they’ve got, and while the other linebackers are nice players, they don’t fit that bill.
Thus to stop the pass, this defense had to go small, which eventually led to getting pushed around in the running game as those smaller bodies started to fatigue and miss tackles. Carolina could have given up 400+ passing yards and won this game. But 343 rushing yards is the kiss of death against an Air Raid offense.
Lack of Depth
Like it or not, this game was one in which the lack of depth influenced by sanctions reared its head. Part of the logic of Fedora’s up-tempo attack is to wear down the opposing defense over the course of the game. Facing another team that plays at warp speed, that meant the North Carolina defense faced a staggering 97 plays. By way of comparison, Vanderbilt averages under 60 snaps per game; the defenses in this game faced about 1.5x the number of snaps in a usual game.
And through the first 24 minutes, the Carolina defense actually played well, coming up with stops on four of the first seven ECU drives. But the floodgates opened after that, with the Pirates breaking the will of an exhausted Tar Heel defense with two quick scores before halftime and then scoring at will in the second half.
That lack of depth in the Carolina back eight exacerbated the lack of size on the field, as ECU began to run through and around tackles as Carolina looked helpless.
No Offense, but No Offense
Wait, so I’m going to blame the offense when the defense gives up 70 points? Partially, yes. As I said, the defense played well early in the game, getting four key stops in the first half and giving the offense solid field position early in the game.
But the offense came away with two field goals on two trips inside the five yard line, with the resulting 13–7 score significantly different from the 21–7 it should have been. Not scoring touchdowns on those drives changed the complexion of the game, and once things turned into a track meet, losing that extra cushion was especially crucial.
The only way Carolina got into the end zone early in the game was via two trick plays, a receiver pass and a fake field goal, so it wasn't’ exactly rolling early. Then after the offense went three-and-out on Mitch Trubisky’s second series, the offense rattled off the following results: Punt, Punt, Punt, Half, INT while ECU went on a scoring spree to put the game out of reach.
The offense cratered right when the defense ran out of gas, and the combination was not a good one. This was a defensive embarrassment, yes. But it was also a total team loss. Everything failed all at once.
If You Have Two QBs, You Don’t Have One
There’s an old saying that if you have two quarterbacks, you don’t have one. And right now, that’s the situation Carolina finds itself in. Trubisky’s two appearances in the first half made it clear to me that this coaching staff still doesn’t fully believe in Marquise Williams at quarterback. But Trubisky hasn’t distinguished himself, either.
Carolina’s first drive featured two plays that illustrated just why the staff hasn’t fully committed to Williams. The first was a play-action pass to Jack Tabb where the tight end was wide open, but Williams never shifted his weight forward on the throw and floated it into the deep coverage, fortunate to avoid an interception.
The second was a slip-slant to Mack Hollins from the five-yard line. Hollins was wide open after winning the battle on the line of scrimmage but Williams again didn’t transfer his weight, short-armed the throw, and floated the ball harmlessly through the end zone. That was a well-schemed play that good offenses connect on for a routine touchdown, but three plays later, Carolina came away with only a field goal.
Trubisky has flashed much more promise as a passer since arriving on campus, which has led the coaching staff to give him opportunities to win the job, thinking he could add a reliable downfield dimension to an offense limited by Williams’s inconsistency as a passer. But Trubisky has not separated himself in game action, providing neither significantly better accuracy or decision-making to date. The Carolina offense thus remains in a situation where it lacks consistent quarterbacking and offensive line play, the latter of which has suffered even more due to the loss of its two best linemen.
But I do think the staff is in a tough position with respect to the quarterback position, especially now that the offensive line is an even bigger concern. There’s no doubt that Carolina has continued to lack any sense of a downfield passing threat, and if teams can compress the field, the offense will continue to struggle.
The staff is going to have to make a decision: either make a change at quarterback and risk losing the team by going with the guy they think could be the future or reevaluate what they’re doing on offense, scrapping most of what they’re trying to develop in the passing game to emphasize the option and zone-read aspects of the offense and make best use of what Williams does well. They can’t stay between these choices much longer.