The improvement at the quarterback position has been most notable. It appears the coaching staff has finally made a choice at the position, committing to Marquise Williams and doing a better job of asking him to do what he does best. Williams has run 18 and 16 times in the last two games, averaging 6.02 yards per carry in the process.
This has led to better down-and-distance situations for the offense. Against Virginia Tech, nine of Carolina’s 13 third-down opportunities were third-and-five or more. The Heels went 0/9 on those long-yardage conversion attempts. This game’s third-down chart looks markedly different:
3rd and 7 at UNC 28
3rd and 1 at GT 34
3rd and 5 at UNC 26 (success)
3rd and 3 at UNC 42 (success)
3rd and 4 at GT 15 (success, TD)
3rd and 2 at UNC 33 (success)
3rd and 12 at UNC 35
3rd and 6 at GT 42 (success)
3rd and 5 at GT 45 (success)
3rd and 2 at GT 44 (success)
3rd and 5 at GT 35
3rd and 11 at UNC 48
3rd and 4 at UNC 31 (success)
3rd and 1 at GT 46 (success)
3rd and 4 at GT 24 (success)
This time, eight of Carolina’s 15 third-down opportunities were for less than five yards, with the Heels going 10/15 on third down in this game, including 7/8 on those third and manageable situations (they successfully went for it on fourth down on the only one they did not get).
That testifies to Carolina’s success on first and second down as the UNC running game has been much better the last two weeks, thanks to the return of Landon Turner and Jon Heck and a greater commitment to use Williams’s legs in more of a true spread-option attack.
That has in turn opened the passing game, as Williams has been able to throw off play action rather than the offense being forced to throw because of down and distance. The results have been outstanding, as Williams has also shown greater comfort as a passer, turning in two very efficient performances. That comfort is without a doubt tied to the success of the running game and better protection. Williams’s touchdown throw to Switzer, for example, was on a slow-developing route that requires excellent protection. Williams had just that (look at how much space he had in the pocket) and stepped into the throw better than he has most of the year, resulting in a long touchdown.
Saturday’s performance also showed just how much the UNC coaching staff has committed to Williams, as the junior QB had a rocky start, ending the first two drives with a poor throw on a corner route on the first and then a poorly thrown ball that was intercepted on the second. In the first few games, that third series would have meant Mitch Trubisky, but the staff stuck with Williams and was rewarded with the best passing performance of his career, including a clutch drive for a score with the game on the line.
The throw that stood out to me the most, however, was on a dig route to T.J. Thorpe where Williams hit the back of his drop, hitched, and made an excellent throw in rhythm between the hashes. If Williams is going to make that throw with regularity, this offense is an entirely different beast—and Williams could start to resemble a Tim Tebow-type of dual-threat QB.
An Example of Poor Eye Discipline
The defense, however, still struggled in this game, with poor safety play again front and center. I should note, however, that just like other recent weeks, the defense had only given up 10 points with 1:30 left in the first half. They gave up 33 from that point. Carolina’s lack of depth on defense (blame sanctions) continues to be exposed a bit by the higher number of plays they face, a fact quickly demonstrable by observing the difference in points allowed in the first versus second halves this year.
That said, some of the defensive woes are simply the result of poor fundamentals, particularly eye discipline at the safety position. The first play of the game exposed that yet again, as Paul Johnson schemed to take advantage of it right from the start.
The Yellow Jackets’ second touchdown did the same, as the left wingback was able to arc release past the line of scrimmage and run right by two secondary players who were over-occupied with backfield action, ignoring the receiver running right past them:
Three players watch the (decoy) pitch man, as the wingback runs upfield. Look at how this results in four defensive players all standing within a ten-yard box as the wingback runs to space. Safety Tim Scott should be in the middle of the field (on the right hash, actually) where the pass is ultimately caught, but he is at least five yards out of position due to poor eye discipline.
The defense is clearly getting tired and giving up more plays as the game goes along, but this kind of breakdown simply cannot happen, let alone from a senior.
Williams Runs for the Score
North Carolina’s offense has featured quite a few different quarterback run looks the past two weeks as Williams has been the featured ball carrier in the offense. Williams’s 13-yard run for a score in the third quarter offers a nice example of his versatility as a runner in a read-option scenario even when the play breaks down.
This was a packaged play pairing an inside zone or zone-read with a stick route on the back side. Williams reads the box before to locate the position of the curl-flat defender (circled) to determine run or pass. If that player is in position to take away the pass, he then reads the end man on the line of scrimmage (EMOL; in the square) to determine whether he should give or keep.
As it turns out, Williams actually misreads this play and should have given it to T.J. Logan, as the curl-flat player and EMOL (both circled) are in good position to take away the pass and QB, respectively. (In fairness, the flat coverage player was in an area where he probably could have picked either one, but the EMOL took away the passing lane.)
But this is where Williams’s natural ability as a runner and improviser comes into play. He pumps the EMOL into the air and immediately follows Logan on what becomes a QB inside zone, finding a seam and scoring, thanks to an outstanding combo block from LG Caleb Peterson (who climbs to get the linebacker) and C Lucas Crowley, as well as a solid cutoff block from Turner on the backside.
It’s a busted play and the defense is initially in position to make the stop, but Williams’s instincts and running ability turn it into a score.