This is our second 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.
Since Coach Larry Fedora arrived in 2012, the North Carolina football team has found its identity on the offensive side of the ball. After averaging a school-record 7.3 yards per play in 2015, the Tar Heels set their sights even higher this year with a number of productive players returning.
Though the offense didn’t quite live up to the hype in the first game against Georgia, it showed more of its potential this past Saturday against Illinois — racking up 462 yards of total offense on 7.5 yards a play in a 48-23 victory. The Tar Heels rely heavily on the read option, and when it’s executed as well as it was Saturday, it makes the team almost impossible to defend.
Building off what we discussed last week, the offense is always trying to play a numbers game with the defense in order to win. This is evident in the photo below.
The Tar Heels have six blockers against seven defenders, which normally would be considered an unfavorable situation for the offense. But the read option changes the equation in the offense’s favor by creating the threat of the quarterback run.
In the above picture, the offensive line blocks down. After the snap, quarterback Mitch Trubisky will read the Illinois defensive end. If he crashes toward the running back, Trubisky will pull the ball and run toward the vacated space. If the defensive end slows down and eyes the quarterback, Trubisky will hand it off to the running back — who now has six blockers on six defenders.
The crux of this play is Trubisky. He has to identify what the defender decides, then make that decision wrong.
On this play, the end charges hard at running back Elijah Hood, thinking there’s a good chance UNC is handing the ball to its most talented player. It’s an easy read for Trubisky; he pulls the ball and makes a beeline for the endzone.
The read option has helped create a huge gap for Trubisky to run through, and he displays his talents as a runner by spinning off a tackler and into the end zone for his second score of the night and third of the season.
UNC runs the read option again late in the game. The Tar Heels line up in the exact same formation as before, and again they have six blockers versus seven defenders.
As before, Trubisky will read the defensive end. If he crashes, the UNC quarterback will keep the ball; if he slows down, Trubisky will hand it off.
This time, the defender waits on Trubisky, which gives the quarterback the go-ahead to hand off to Hood.
The read defender is out of position to catch Hood. And while UNC offensive tackle Bentley Spain has missed his block, he’s forced the defender out of position to make the tackle.
After breaking a tackle, Hood is off to the races for a 62-yard touchdown.
Meanwhile, Trubisky continues to run like he has the football, albeit half-heartedly. This is for good reason. Offenses will either try to run the same play out of different formations, or they'll run different plays out of the same formation. The main goal is to keep defenses guessing, and the read option is a huge component of how UNC does that.
This next play comes in the second quarter, when the Tar Heels went for the touchdown from two yards out with two seconds left in the half.
It's not a read option, but Trubisky fakes the handoff to Hood as if it were one. As a result, the two linebackers for Illinois are standing still watching to see who will end up with the ball.
But the play call is really a pass, with Mack Hollins running a slant route from the far side of the field as the intended target.
Because of the play action, there’s a wide open window for Trubisky to throw to Hollins without worrying about the linebacker undercutting the pass. The offensive linemen have cut-blocked their defenders, knocking them down so they can’t bat down the pass. This should have been a touchdown on a gutsy play call by Fedora to close the first half.
Hollins ultimately can’t make the catch in tight coverage, but it was a good play call nonetheless. The play built off how the Tar Heels had been moving the ball with the read option throughout the game. If UNC can continue Saturday's success for the rest of the season, the Tar Heels will rack up yards and touchdowns yet again.