This is our fourth installment of Film Review, our weekly series where we break down a particular aspect of the weekend's action to help you better understand what's happening on the field. Here is our first piece on UNC's run defense, our second piece on the read-option attack and our third piece on how the offense has evolvedunder Coach Larry Fedora.
With three-and-a-half minutes to go in the fourth quarter against Pittsburgh on Saturday, North Carolina orchestrated a majestic drive to secure a 37-36 comeback win that rivals any other finish in program history. Here’s a look at how the Tar Heels did it.
The Panthers built a 36-23 lead thanks to an offense that controlled the clock and kept the Tar Heels off the field. While UNC had moved the ball with some success earlier in the game, they’d been held in check in the final quarter by a persistent pass rush from Pittsburgh. When the Tar Heels punted, trailing by 13 with nine minutes remaining in the game, many fans headed for the exits.
But UNC scored a touchdown to cut the deficit to six. Then, after a stop by a Tar Heel defense that didn’t generate many of them, UNC took over with 1st-and-10 from its own 37-yard line.
This is the first play. UNC has three receivers right and one to the left, with running back Elijah Hood in the backfield. Throughout the fourth quarter, Pittsburgh brought pressure that at times got to quarterback Mitch Trubisky and forced incompletions from the normally steady quarterback. The Panthers look to do the same here, as both linebackers are delayed-blitzing.
There are more pass rushers than there are blockers, and there’s a defender (3) with a free run at Trubisky. But in order to combat the Panthers’ pass rush, the Tar Heels incorporated a lot of short throws to get the ball out before the defenders could get to the quarterback. The ball is already well on its way to its intended target — wide receiver Austin Proehl — before the defender can impact the play.
Proehl catches it and turns up the field for a gain of five yards. Though it’s not a lot, it does put the offense in more manageable situations on second and third downs that, in theory, are easier to convert.
But just two plays later, UNC finds itself facing 3rd-and-16 after a penalty.
Because the pass rush has given the Tar Heels so much trouble, they’ve put two players in the backfield to help protect Trubisky and give him time to find an open receiver down the field. Multiple Pittsburgh defenders are threatening to blitz at the line of scrimmage. But on this play, the Tar Heels give Trubisky a clean pocket to work from.
Because it’s third-and-long, the cornerback is giving Proehl a lot of room at the top of the screen in what is called "bail coverage." He has his body turned toward the middle of the field and is running backwards, eyes on the play to see how it develops and ready to come forward to make the tackle short of the line to gain.
Proehl, whose father carved out a 17-year career in the NFL as a superb route-runner, runs a great route of his own. He stems his route hard to force the corner to bail deep, then stops and comes back and away toward the sideline.
Because the corner’s hips were facing the middle of the field, he can’t redirect quickly enough to make a play on the receiver. Proehl generates five yards of separation — a huge window for Trubisky to throw into — and makes a nice catch along the sideline.
That throw sets up a more manageable fourth-down attempt.
The Tar Heels again keep two blockers in, and the Panthers again show blitz.
But this time, there’s a breakdown in the Tar Heels’ protection. Linebacker Quintin Wirginis (No. 56) comes unblocked down the middle of the field and is coming to Trubisky with a full head of steam. Hood can’t stop him from forcing Trubisky to get rid of the ball quickly.
This was one of Trubisky’s best passes all day. He drops this ball in to Ryan Switzer between two defenders while under pressure. This phenomenal throw and catch kept the UNC drive alive when it could have easily died.
Yet after another short completion to Switzer and two incomplete passes, Trubisky again faces a 4th-and-6 with the game on the line.
Instead of keeping in more blockers, UNC has elected to spread the field again. Hood is the only one in the backfield with Trubisky, and there are seven Panthers threatening as blitz possibilities. Proehl is facing press coverage at the top of the screen.
But as the play unfolds, the line picks up the Pittsburgh blitz. Proehl runs another superb route, forcing the corner to turn his hips to the inside as he bails upfield. This is exactly what Proehl wants, as the corner is again out of position to defend the out-breaking route. Considering Trubisky has to deliver this pass from the far hash mark, Proehl’s route makes this play work.
Once again, Proehl’s generated yards of space and makes the grab on the sideline to move UNC down the field.
Converting twice on fourth down on a single drive is already a lot to ask. But the Tar Heels converted three times on fourth down on their game-winning drive.
On the first play after Proehl’s catch, Pittsburgh took down Trubisky for its fourth sack of the game. But Trubisky completes two passes to Switzer to bring up 4th-and-9.
Switzer lines up in the slot on the left side of the formation. Pittsburgh shows blitz yet again by crowding the line of scrimmage, but the offensive line is ready on this play.
The corner that is lined up on Switzer rushes the passer, while linebacker Oluwaseun Idowu (No. 23) drops into a zone in the middle of the field. Switzer will run what’s called a whip route — selling the drag over the middle of the field before planting and running back toward the sideline.
Switzer has learned a lot about route running in his four years at UNC after playing running back in high school. He uses a head fake right before this to sell his route to the middle of the field. Idowu is already drifting with him to where he thinks the ball will go.
Switzer has planted his foot and is heading the other direction, while Idowu is still caught with his momentum going toward the middle of the field. Trubisky is already at the top of his throwing motion, knowing where his roommate is going to break the route.
Even though Trubisky delivers a high pass, Switzer bails him out by skying for a tremendous catch that is just enough for a first down. It was Switzer’s 16th catch of the night, pushing him over 200 yards receiving.
After completing another pass to senior wide receiver Bug Howard to move inside the 5-yard line, the Tar Heels run the exact same play three times in a row.
The play is called “235 Fade.” It calls for the three receivers to run fade routes while the offensive line and running back run a trap play. Trubisky can either hand off to Hood or throw the fade — based on what the defense gives him.
The first time, the pass is incomplete intended for Howard in the end zone. The second, Hood runs for two yards down to the 2-yard line. This is the final play.
The safety comes up near the line of scrimmage to defend against the run, leaving Howard isolated against cornerback Ryan Lewis. Lewis does a solid job of being physical with the much larger Howard for much of the day, but this is a hard matchup to win.
At 6-foot-5 and 210 pounds, Howard uses his size over the 6-foot Lewis. He boxes him out and disengages his left arm to go up and get the pass. His left arm is all he needs. There are several takeaways from this drive. Not only does it give the Tar Heels their first win in their quest of repeating as ACC Coastal Division champions, but it gives them a much-needed shot of confidence in their first-time starter Mitch Trubisky.
The redshirt junior wasn’t perfect on Saturday. But when it mattered, he played with poise and delivered the ball to UNC’s host of playmakers. If UNC can fix a rushing defense that allowed 281 yards, watch out.