This is our eighth 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.
Now, seven weeks later, the defense just turned in its best performance of the season, limiting Virginia to 253 total yards of offense in UNC’s 35-14 win on Saturday.
The bane of the Tar Heels early on was the run defense, as opponents gashed them on the ground week after week. But the team has improved dramatically against the run, surrendering 110 yards on 39 carries against the Cavaliers for just 2.8 yards per carry.
The reasons for UNC's turnaround? Better gap integrity and tackling.
On 3rd-and-6 inside UNC’s red zone in the second quarter, Virginia dialed up a run play even though the Tar Heels had eight defenders in the box.
A third down with more than three yards to gain isn’t typically a situation where teams elect to run the ball, but offenses haven't feared UNC’s run defense this season.
The Cavaliers run off tackle to the left, trying to beat UNC to the edge.
Unlike early in the season, though, the Tar Heels’ defensive linemen aren’t blown off the ball. They do a good job maintaining gap integrity and not giving up a hole for Virginia to run through.
The cornerback at the top of the screen seals the edge and forces Cavalier running back Taquan Mizzell inside. Meanwhile, defensive end Mikey Bart beats his blocker and crashes down hard on Mizzell.
Early in the season, UNC’s defenders rarely beat individual blocks. But Bart beating his block allows him to make first contact with the running back. The Tar Heels swarm to the ball and take down Mizzell short of the line to gain.
Tackling has also been an issue for North Carolina throughout the season. Opposing rushers have regularly run through contact and forced missed tackles. However, the Tar Heels have tackled much better as of late.
The play for Virginia here is a run-pass option, with quarterback Kurt Benkert reading the edge defender to decide whether to hand off or throw the bubble screen to the slot receiver on his left.
Benkert makes the wrong read on the play, choosing to hand off to running back Albert Reid despite UNC linebacker Cole Holcomb closing in fast. While the Tar Heels played well on Saturday, they were helped by Benkert also playing terribly.
Holcomb still has to make the tackle, though. He executes a textbook takedown, wrapping Reid around the legs and keeping his moving through the target.
The tackle forced the Cavaliers to punt after a Ryan Switzer fumble gave them good field position, so it was a key defensive play for North Carolina.
The Tar Heels have been stingy against the pass all season, and that continued again on Saturday. But the secondary’s job has been made easier by UNC’s newfound stability against the run.
Leading by two touchdowns, the Tar Heels forced Virginia into a clear passing situation on second-and-long late in the third quarter. With the field spread for a pass, Benkert hits the top of his dropback with all his downfield receivers blanketed by the UNC defense.
Here Benkert does UNC another favor by scrambling out of a clean pocket and giving UNC’s defensive line a chance to run him down. He throws on the move and under pressure and is nearly picked off by cornerback M.J. Stewart, who had another phenomenal game.
Though UNC’s secondary has been outstanding, the unit has yet to record an interception this season. The Tar Heels are the only Football Bowl Subdivision team to not yet record a pick, but they’re getting their hands on passes every week.
It’s only a matter of time. The next play after this was a fumble recovery by Bart off a botched handoff, so the team is still creating turnovers.
Though Virginia isn’t a marquee offensive opponent, this Tar Heels defensive unit isn’t the same one that let James Madison shred it in the first half back in September. Tougher tests are coming, but young players are stepping up on every level of the defense and getting better with each game.