This is our sixth 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's where to find our previous pieces.
Saturday’s game against Virginia Tech was never an easy matchup for the North Carolina football team. New head coach Justin Fuente has revived the Hokies’ offense this season, while defensive coordinator Bud Foster had kept the defense as strong as any during the Frank Beamer era.
But few could predict the 34-3 shellacking the Tar Heels endured. Virginia Tech limited UNC’s offense to 131 total yards — a far cry from the 484.2 it averaged going into the game.
The No. 17 Hokies had help, however, from the elements. The game was played during torrential rain and gusts of wind courtesy of Hurricane Matthew. While both teams played on the same field, the weather conditions undoubtedly affected the Tar Heels (4-2, 1-1 ACC) more.
The quarterback in Coach Larry Fedora’s scheme is responsible for delivering the ball quickly and efficiently to playmakers in space. Redshirt junior Mitch Trubisky has excelled in that role for most of the season — whether it’s handing the ball off to running backs Elijah Hood or T.J. Logan in the run-pass options sprinkled throughout the Tar Heels’ playbook, or zipping passes downfield to a stacked receiving corps.
Trubisky had gone without an interception for a school-record 243 straight passing attempts, a streak that spanned over the course of the first five games. That changed early in the first quarter on Saturday.
After turning the ball over on downs on its first drive, UNC started its second drive pinned deep in its own territory. A false start backed up the Tar Heels even further, and they faced an obvious passing situation on 3rd-and-15.
Senior Mack Hollins — who will run an out route on the far side of the field — is Trubisky’s primary target on the play.
Virginia Tech is in man coverage and is using a stunt on the right side of its defensive line. Instead of rushing the quarterback from the gaps they lined up in, the defensive end and defensive tackle will switch, with the end going inside and the tackle going outside. The goal is to confuse the offensive linemen.
The defensive end has worked free of UNC left tackle Bentley Spain, but Spain got enough of a punch to allow Trubisky time to throw.
Note Trubisky's position close to the near hash right as he begins his throwing motion. He’s throwing all the way across the field to the far sideline almost 30 yards down the field. Though it would only be a 15-yard throw in the stat book, it’s a much longer — and harder — throw than that.Hollins hasn’t generated much separation from cornerback Greg Stroman, but he has enough of a size advantage and room to the sideline to give Trubisky a window to complete the pass.
It’s a high degree of difficulty throw in perfect weather. In a hurricane, it becomes almost impossible.
For whatever reason — whether it's a poor grip on a wet ball or a gust of wind — Trubisky’s pass loses velocity and dies as it nears Hollins. That gives Stroman a chance to break up the pass.
Stroman makes an excellent play by catching the ball after tipping it to himself. It was the first of four turnovers for the Tar Heels, which Virginia Tech converted into 20 points.
Even without the turnovers, it would have been hard for UNC to move the ball given the conditions.
Late in the third quarter, already trailing 27-3, the Tar Heels had a chance at a touchdown pass but couldn’t convert.
It’s another third-and-long situation for UNC. The cornerback and safety for Virginia Tech are backed off 10 yards from the Tar Heel wide receivers.
Ryan Switzer is in the slot for UNC, and as we outlined last week, giving him that much space is usually a bad idea. Trubisky’s likely identified this before the snap and knows he’s going to throw to Switzer.
As the play gets underway, a linebacker runs with Switzer up the field. His hips are pointing outside, leaving an apparent opening inside for Trubisky’s pass. However, the corner has dropped back deep, while the safety has dropped to guard the flat.
A few UNC players said that Virginia Tech did some exotic things on defense. This is an example of showing one coverage before the snap, then rotating to a different one when the play begins.Trubisky sees the safety leave and thinks the middle of the field is open. He lofts the pass in to Switzer, but the cornerback — in this case, it's Stroman again — is back deep and in position to break on the ball.
This is another way the wet conditions come in to play. With a wet ball, receivers will tend to “body catch” and try to pin the ball against their torso —instead of plucking the ball with their hands —because they’re less confident in getting a grip on the ball.
Switzer tries to body catch the ball, but Stroman puts his shoulder right through the ball and knocks it loose.
Though Virginia Tech was often gifted great field position by UNC’s turnovers, the Hokies’ offense still managed to double UNC’s total offensive yardage. They were more effective because they were less reliant on the pass than the Tar Heels — who were admittedly shorthanded without leading rusher Elijah Hood and redshirt senior guard Caleb Peterson.
The lack of a consistent rushing attack left the Tar Heels in unfavorable down and distance situations where the defense knew UNC needed to pass. Meanwhile, Virginia Tech ran the ball 66 times for 189 yards, creating enough of a threat to keep the UNC defense off balance.
At first glance, this play looks like a run. Following a UNC fumble, it’s 1st-and-10 — which statistically is a running situation. The left guard pulls and quarterback Jerod Evans appears ready to hand it off to the running back.
Yet Evans is handing off to no one, as the running back goes to the opposite side. None of the other offensive linemen are advancing down the field either, like they typically would on a run play.
Despite this, the linebackers and strong safety Donnie Miles still have their eyes in the backfield, looking for the run.Now the play is definitely a pass. The fake has sucked linebackers Cole Holcomb and Andre Smith to a few yards within the line of scrimmage — leaving an open space for the Virginia Tech tight end — but they’ve at least recognized it’s a pass play.
Miles, though, remains frozen in place.
Wet ball or not, this is an easy pass for Evans with a wide-open tight end in the middle of the defense. Miles’ poor reaction makes him late to the play, and all he can do is try to hit the tight end hard enough to dislodge the ball.
He instead knocks him into the end zone.
This pass is only one of seven that the Hokies completed on the day. UNC’s defense played an okay game, but the offense consistently forced them to defend short fields after turning the ball over.
From an analysis standpoint, there’s not much to glean from this game. A perfect storm of weather, injuries and turnovers doomed the Tar Heels in this game.
North Carolina is much better than the 34-3 final score suggests. Sometimes you just have to forget a game and move on — something UNC will try to do this weekend on the road against No. 16 Miami.