It’s hard to pinpoint exactly one reason why. The Tar Heels got a little bit worse in a lot of areas, and when the tiny regressions were put all together, it led to seven less points per game.
We’ll start the discussion by looking at North Carolina’s change at quarterback. Mitch Trubisky, a consensus first-round pick if he declares for the 2016 NFL Draft, replaced Marquise Williams under center this season. Trubisky is the better passer and clearly the better pro prospect; his clutch plays late won the Pittsburgh and Florida State games for UNC.
In 2016, Trubisky threw for 289 yards per game and 28 touchdowns, completing 68.9 percent of his passes. Williams threw for 219.4 yards per game and 24 touchdown passes in two more games than Trubisky, completing just 61.3 percent of his throws.
But any analysis of the Tar Heel offense should acknowledge where North Carolina missed Wiliams compared to Trubisky.
Williams was an excellent runner. He was quick when a hole opened up in the defense, yet powerful enough to plow over an unsuspecting defensive back. Williams rushed for over 1,000 yards in 14 games in 2015.
Trubisky, while quicker than Williams, just didn’t have that same spark on the ground. He is a pocket passer, for better or worse, and didn’t look to scramble nearly as much as Williams did. Trubisky has rushed for 396 yards through 12 games in 2016, and he has eight less rushing touchdowns than his predecessor finished with last season.
Williams’ read options also opened up the Tar Heel offense and proved to be an asset in short-yardage situations. Opposing defenses had to account for an extra threat, especially in the red zone. And the read-option opened up packaged plays and deep passes for the North Carolina offense to abuse.
UNC regressed slightly in finishing drives and in short-yardage situations this season. A big reason why was the loss of Williams’ rushing ability. Those tiny regressions, combined with others, cost the Tar Heels points in 2016
Another key reason why the Tar Heel offense faltered in 2016 was because of injuries. Before the season started, North Carolina lost veteran lineman John Ferranto. The Ferranto loss was bad enough by itself, but it also served as a bad omen of things to come.
By the end of the season, the Tar Heels lost two more key contributors, Caleb Peterson and Mack Hollins, to season-ending injuries. Starters Jon Heck, Elijah Hood and Brandon Fritts also missed games.
Hollins was the Tar Heels’ best deep threat. In 2015, Hollins averaged 24.8 yards per catch thriving under an aggressive Tar Heel passing attack and with a quarterback in Williams who could get him the ball. Williams, for all his troubles as a passer, was an underrated deep-ball thrower, and those explosive plays often led to touchdowns for Hollins.
Without Williams’ deep ball, and without Hollins for the second half of the 2016 slate, the Tar Heels’ downfield passing attack suffered. Trubisky showed the capability to hit long passes, but he never did so consistently. His deficiencies were compounded when he lost his best deep threat.
In 2015, the North Carolina offense averaged 14.1 yards per catch. In 2016, that number was 12.2. Again, it’s a small difference, but it adds a piece to the puzzle of why UNC went backward offensively in 2016.
The losses of two offensive linemen also hurt. Ferranto and Peterson were solid contributors along what was supposed to be a veteran group for the Tar Heels. Instead, UNC broke in a host of different linemen like R.J. Prince, Tommy Hatton and William Sweet throughout the season.
There were flashes of greatness, like when Hatton won an ACC Lineman of the Week award, but there were also growing pains. False starts among the offensive line were a part of a larger penalty problem the Tar Heels faced in 2016, with the team committing an average of 62.2 penalty yards per game. In 2015, that number was just 46.4 yards per game.
Put the penalties, the decrease in deep passes and explosive plays, the injuries and the absence of a true rushing threat at quarterback together, and you get seven less points in 2016 than in 2015. Take seven points per game away from an offense, and that’s how you end up winning eight games and feeling let down with the end result.