Jason: Postgame Chalkboard from UNC-ND

The coaching staff needed to make a choice between quarterbacks Marquise Williams and Mitch Trubisky and to focus the offense on what that quarterback does best. That choice was made on Saturday.

Not only did Williams play the full game, putting in his best performance of the season in the process, I felt the offensive plan played to Williams’s strengths better than we have seen most of the year.

The offensive staff did an excellent job finding ways to create space in the short passing game, adapting to the throws Williams makes best—shorter throws mostly outside the hashes—while featuring him in the running game. At some point better defenses will still force UNC to be able to throw downfield and over the middle, but the use of stacked sets, slant/curl combinations, and other similar concepts gave Williams throws he could make comfortably.

Stacked Double Scats

One way the offense did this on Saturday was a return to an old Fedora staple but with a twist: double scats out of a stacked formation.

On this play, the primary read is always the scat or snag route, a short curl that finds the space in the coverage either just inside or outside the outside linebacker or nickel corner. Basically, the receiver must find the inside coverage, punch into the ground just short of him, and pivot away, giving the quarterback a passing window between the inside and outside short zone coverage.

The twist here is to do it out of a stacked alignment that ensures a free release and creates more space on the outside for Williams to make a throw he’s comfortable with.

Based on his presnap read, Williams knows this is a basic cover-two look with a three-man rush, but the curl coverage to the right side of the offense is dropping from an alignment on the line of scrimmage just outside the tackle, meaning he’s not going to be able to get to the football if it goes to tight end Jack Tabb’s outside shoulder, while the corner is occupied by the vertical release from the other receiver in the stack.

This play winds up a routine throw-and-catch for a first down on 3rd-and-6, something Carolina has not done well all season. The staff made a very subtle schematic move here, but it resulted in a key third down conversion.

Other Offensive Observations

You also have to give credit to the offensive line, which took a big step forward against a quality defensive front. As they’ve gotten healthier, they’ve gotten better, which is a good sign for a young front. Williams was more comfortable in part because the line gave him more time, though he also did a better job moving in the pocket, particularly stepping up when pressure came from the outside. This was especially noticeable on his second-quarter touchdown throw to Quinshad Davis, on which he climbed the pocket, avoided pressure from the outside, and made an excellent back-shoulder throw for the score.

That said, I don’t understand why Carolina went to tight formations inside the five-yard line, going away from what they do best and reducing Williams’s effectiveness as a runner out of the shotgun. It’s just surprising to see a Fedora team trying to bash its head through a wall like that.

I do believe spread teams need to be able to play with power when the field shrinks, but I don’t think they have to go to completely tight formations to do that, especially outside the one-yard line. Instead, I’d prefer to see QB Power and similar calls out of the shotgun in those situations—Clemson was very successful with Tajh Boyd running that over the last few years, and Auburn has done quite well with those looks as well.

That said, the offense played well enough to win this game, though the turnovers were obviously costly.

Defense Remains a Work in Progress

I thought the defense also played really well in spots. There were points where I was struck by how well Carolina had scouted the Irish, as the Tar Heels’ awareness of Notre Dame tendencies led to Jeff Schoettmer’s pick-six and several other near-takeaways.

There were numerous positives throughout the afternoon on the defensive side of the ball. The Tar Heel defensive line won its share of battles against the Notre Dame offensive line, pressuring QB Everette Golson into mistakes. Des Lawrence played perhaps his best game since arriving in Chapel Hill. The defense largely avoided giving up the huge plays that had plagued it in previous games, with Notre Dame’s longest play from scrimmage a 37-yard score on a receiver screen.

Nevertheless, the defense still gave up 50 points and continues to struggle overall, as Notre Dame averaged 6.4 yards per play on the day even without the big plays. The hardest part about breaking down the defense right now is that no one thing can be identified as the problem. Instead, it’s one thing on one drive and another the next. As I said last week, this team just isn’t good enough at one thing at this point to be able to compensate for its weaknesses.

Then there are the occasional bizarre breakdowns that seem to have no real explanation. This week, it was Tarean Folston’s six-yard untouched score late in the second quarter.

Notre Dame comes out in a one-back trips-right formation, and Carolina responds by putting three defensive backs over the trips with additional support from Schoettmer, who plays outside the defensive end. Notre Dame has numbers in the box and checks to an inside zone right.

From this alignment, if every UNC player takes the gap directly in front of him, every gap should be accounted for, so long as the defensive back on the tight end side takes a gap. But what happens on the snap is baffling.

The defensive line slants right, with each taking the gap to the right of where he lined up. Linebacker Travis Hughes reads the offensive line’s zone right step and shoots the playside A gap. But not one defender accounts for the backside B gap (between the guard and tackle), leaving a gaping hole in the defensive front.

I have watched this play repeatedly and still can’t figure out what happened for sure. Someone has to be responsible for that gap, but the combination of alignment and call give every indication otherwise. It’s possible that the defensive back should be responsible for that gap, but that would potentially put him in a bind against play action.

It’s also possible (and perhaps more likely) that RDT Justin Thomason was responsible for that gap, meaning he should have taken the gap in front of him rather than stepping right. But then I would expect Shakeel Rashad to take the C gap inside the tight end rather than the outside.

Put simply, this is a mess. And it’s exactly the kind of breakdown that continues to cost the defense in key situations. Every team is going to miss tackles and make mistakes, but these kinds of egregious missed assignments are the real killers on defense.

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