CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – This was the year for North Carolina’s veteran offensive roster, built to blend with the brilliance of Larry Fedora’s simplistic yet explosive scheme, to maximize its potential and dismantle the record books.
There were glimpses of such efficiency, whether it be the shootout in Tallahassee or the improbable comeback against Pittsburgh, although the hopes for consistently elite production have been muted in recent weeks. Season-ending injuries to NFL prospects like wide receiver Mack Hollins and left guard Caleb Peterson often have that effect.
UNC’s piecemeal offense moved the ball just enough in the second half against Miami to keep its defense rested and ready to secure the win. While the storylines in South Florida focused on the reemergence of Gene Chizik’s defense, it was the offense breathing a sigh of relief after failing to score after halftime.
Against Virginia, the Tar Heel offense was without three veterans with 104 career starts to their credit, and it was obvious early with miscues, in the form of both penalties and missed blocking assignments. Redshirt freshman Tommy Hatton was making his third career start, and his second at left guard, while fellow classmate William Sweet got his first start at right tackle.
They spent the week preparing for trip to Scott Stadium, complete with encouragement from coaches and teammates.
“They’re younger and they’re so hard on themselves,” quarterback Mitch Trubisky said. “They want to play perfect in their role for the team, but it’s just not going to happen. So you just go over to the guys and continue to talk to them, give them confidence. They did a heck of a job. I’m really proud of them.”
Austin Proehl started in place of Hollins, and it seemed on one first quarter play as though Trubisky was looking for No. 13 when his replacement got behind the Cavalier defense. The pass was a bit too long, prompting murmurs in the press box that maybe, just maybe, Hollins could have tracked it down.
UNC utilized its 22 and 21 personnel in certain situations, which Fedora explained later was due to the situation afflicting his offensive line and wide receivers.
“We’re a beat up football team, and we were doing what we had to do to try to get a win,” the fifth-year UNC head coach said.
It undoubtedly helped to play against a defense that entered the day ranked 107th nationally in total defense (450.7 ypg). It also helped to have a quarterback like Trubisky (24-of-31, 310 yards, 3 TD) who is able to mask deficiencies. That being said, the adjustment required was more about working together and simply playing football than the quality of opponent, especially up front.
"It was more just about becoming more consistent,” Fedora said. “We had some false start penalties. With all of these new guys in there, it was just little things that you wouldn't notice where we were shooting ourselves in the foot. We block a play one way in practice and they give us that exact look and then, all of a sudden, one of the guys said, ‘I thought this guy was going to get him.’ I mean, we've been blocking it that way in practice all week.
“Those are young guys, and I try to tell them that they're not young anymore. We’re going into our 13th week; they're not young anymore. It's time to step up and do their job."
The Tar Heels managed to take a 14-7 lead into halftime. The break, along with a deep breath or two, settled the offense and provided a level of traction to start the second half. After a turnover on its first drive, UNC scored touchdowns on three of its next four possessions to build a 35-14 lead with 9:01 to play.
“We’ve just got guys that can play all over the field,” wide receiver Bug Howard said. “With the injury to Mack, of course it hurt us. With Peterson, it hurt us. But we’ve got younger guys that can come in and know exactly what needs to be done to get the job done. They [carried] their weight pretty well today.”
The injury slide continues. R.J. Prince, who was not even on the three-deep at right guard in spring ball, started his seventh game at that position in Charlottesville before exiting to the locker room in the second half. Reserve interior lineman Brad Henson subbed in to finish the game, adding another body to the long list that has been called upon so far.
The gaudy records the 2012 offense first set before the 2015 unit topped them and that 2016 was thought to challenge are nothing more than fodder for fans and media alike. The true value of an offense resides in its ability to score enough to stress the opposing defense, and above all, win.
The Tar Heels did just that on Saturday.