UNC 36, Wake Forest 34: Position Grades

UNC 36, Wake Forest 34: Position Grades

I’m going to try and keep this shorter than I usually do, because honestly, this team keeps playing the same game week after week and there’s only so much I can add to what I’ve already said. Improbably, this team has basically found the same victory over and over again to the tune of the program’s first Coastal Championship in 7 years and a 9-win season with two very winnable games remaining. I’m not sure what’s next, really, but it’s certainly more fun to wonder from the winning side of things. Anyways, let’s evaluate last night’s performances:

What more is there to say about Drake Maye? Seemingly tasked with more and more of an offensive load every week, Maye continues to rise to the occasion and prove he’s probably the best college quarterback in the country. He set another career high in attempts with 49, and completed 31 of them for 448 yards and 3 touchdowns without turning the ball over — a completion rate that’s actually been low for his standards, but was hurt by about 6 drops (more on that later ). He was also effective running the ball, with 92 non-sack yards and another score. He’s got a couple of warts: his deep ball still needs some work, as he misfired on a couple of deep attempts and underthrew a couple of others that still ended up being caught, and he also needs to work on the transition areas between passer and runner — he’s sometimes a little too quick to bail from clean pockets if he sees grass, and conversely he’s sometimes a little too slow to commit to running when he’s flushed out of the pocket. But those are nitpicks, really. Maye is absolutely carrying this offense, elevating his teammates, and playing quarterback at easily the highest level Chapel Hill’s ever seen.

I’m not really sure what to make of Elijah Green being the only running back to get any carries the past couple of weeks. Caleb Hood’s injured and Omarion Hampton’s probably going to be on the bench for a while after a couple too many fumbles, but DJ Jones and George Pettaway seem to have been sheltered after looking more than serviceable early in the season. They’ve gotten on the field, but not for run plays. This isn’t to bag on Green, who had a decent game. He’s a good receiver out of the backfield and turns creases into chunk plays pretty regularly with explosiveness and speed, but his relative weakness in condensed space isn’t always complementary with an offensive line that’s much better in zone blocking than in man. A final line of 18 rushes for 66 yards and a touchdown isn’t awful, but he had 8 of his 18 carries go for 1 or fewer yards, which puts pressure on a quarterback to convert longer passing downs and kills offensive momentum. The best example of this was UNC’s failed goal-line conversion on its third-to-last meaningful drive of the game. With a yard to get on third down, Green got the call to go off right tackle. There was daylight there for a second for a back to lower his pads and churn for the goal line, but Green tried to speed to the line instead and got stood up, losing half a yard and asking a discombobulating passing offense to make a big play instead. On the other hand, Green was magnificent in pass protection, looking for work and stoning linebackers regularly, giving his quarterback all kinds of time through three quarters.

Josh Downs was again downright unguardable, making mincemeat of the Wake Forest secondary at all levels en route to 11 catches for 154 yards and all three of the Heels’ touchdowns through the air. He apparently experienced serious cramps in the second half and clearly wasn’t moving right, but still had an incredible catch and run after the catch for his longest play of the night when the Heels needed him, setting up the game-winning field goal. Tight end Bryson Nesbit also announced his return from injury emphatically, with 3 catches on UNC’s opening drive and 5 total for 63 yards. Unfortunately, some inconsistency popped up everywhere else. Antoine Green, who’s been so good this year, had one fantastic deep catch before dropping another and then later suffering another drop that would’ve given the Heels a first down, then redeemed himself with a tough catch over the middle, getting tattooed with a hit that would take him out for the rest of the game. In relief, JJ Jones, who’s come through in big situations time and again, dropped a couple of balls in between one nice catch. Gavin Blackwell dropped a potential touchdown, and Kobe Paysour was too slow out of his break to catch another. On the brighter side, tight ends Kamari Morales and John Copenhaver made a couple of nice plays, as they have all season.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the tradeoff between last year’s line, which was decent run blocking and abysmal in pass protection, and this year’s, which has been not great in the run game but pretty decent as pass blockers, is one I would make every single day and twice on Saturdays. I do wish they could be a little better as people movers in power situations, which doomed the Heels a couple of times throughout the game, but they give Maye the time he needs to work his magic, and I can’t want for much more than that. This game, though, it looked like they got worn down with about 10 minutes to go in the game, and suddenly Maye was seeing a lot more black jerseys around him and played a lot more uncomfortable as a result. The offensive disjointment of the fourth quarter for the Heels was up to a lot of things: Downs playing on one leg, Green’s absence, Maye looking a little shaken up, but none more so, it seemed to me, than an offensive line that tired out more quickly than the defensive front they were up against. Fortunately, they’d held up for enough time for UNC to get in position to eke out the win.

For the second week in a row, the UNC defensive line allowed an absolutely anemic rushing attack to run wild on them, getting handled at the line of scrimmage time and again and absolutely handing the edges to whoever Wake Forest put at running back. The Heels were gashed for 4.6 yards per non-quarterback carry and 170 total rushing yards for a team that hadn’t averaged better than 3.5 yards per carry against any conference opponent. In the passing game, they were helped by a healthy dose of extra pressure, which turned out to be a boom-or-bust proposition all game: they forced some quick throws that didn’t convert 3rd downs, pressured Hartman into the game- saving interception, and got in his face on 3 consecutive downs to end the game, but when they didn’t get home, Hartman made the UNC defense pay a lot, too, with 4 conversions on 4th down and several huge pass plays. When the defensive front made a good play, Jahvaree Ritzie was usually involved, including getting hands on Hartman first for UNC’s only sack of the day. Myles Murphy made a couple of good plays but also a handful of negative ones, including getting penalized for hands to the face in a play that would stand out a lot more if the game had gone any other way.

Another game, another Cedric Gray performance leading the team in tackles, even as Gene Chizik was sending him into the line of scrimmage constantly rather than asking him to play sideline-to-sideline as he normally does. Gray’s been good at basically everything he’s been asked to do and is involved in just about every positive thing the defense does; he’s a legitimate stud. Kaimon Rucker also had an excellent game, with 5 tackles, UNC’s only tackle for loss, and forcing a Sam Hartman fumble on a 4th down he was threatening to pick up with his legs against all odds, but really put his mark on the game late , forcing two holding penalties on Wake’s last drive that set the Demon Deacons behind the sticks and eventually made it impossible for them to convert a needed first down. Power Echols also had a nice game, also living as a blitzer and destroying pass-protecting running backs time and again, even though in doing so he often took himself out of plays.

Cam Kelly somehow saved this rating from being a lot worse with an interception that might have been UNC’s most impactful play of the season, reading Sam Hartman all the way and undercutting his pass. Otherwise, it was the same story we’ve seen all season. A couple of impactful breakups from both starting cornerbacks, but a lot of getting toasted deep down the sidelines, especially from Storm Duck. Duck and Tony Grimes ended up combining for 15 tackles (8 for Duck, 7 for Grimes), but the effort on those tackles seemed to wax and wane: on one play they’d be forcing a ballcarrier down on the spot, the next they ‘d be carried for four extra yards. Grimes actually led the whole team in solo tackles, making much more of an impact defending the ball than he has most weeks, but was also called for a pass interference near the end of the game that the Heels were fortunate didn’t hurt them. Other than the interception, Kelly had increased responsibilities in the short field this game with linebackers and DeAndre Boykins living in the backfield, and wasn’t really up to it for the most part, missing several tackles that would have ended drives and allowing either easy fourth downs or straight-up firsts.

Noah Burnette’s first missed extra point of the season couldn’t have come at a worse time, as it had a huge influence on how the rest of the second half played out, usually for the worse for UNC: a failed two-point conversion that they did manage to offset with a two-point conversion denail of their own, and scoring margins that gave Wake Forest much easier paths to victory than the Heels. He made up for it, though, with a game-winning field goal from 33 yards out, and was solid in kickoff as well, baiting a few ill-advised returns by the Deacs. Ben Kiernan seemed to have a punt tipped early in the second half that gave Wake Forest good field position, but pinned them at the five on his other. And returners did well to handle Wake Forest’s bizarre handling of their own kickoffs, which they pooched to around the 20 each time: instead of trying to return anything, UNC’s coverage players made fair catches, avoiding catastrophe. That’s good instruction from the special teams coach.

I do give credit to Gene Chizik for coming into this game with an actual plan. He blitzed linebackers and defensive backs regularly and certainly much more often than he has all season, trying to force Sam Hartman under pressure and into making the same kind of bad decisions and throws that made him throw three interceptions in each of his last two games. Like I said earlier, it was a boom-or-bust proposition, and it both boomed and busted plenty for the Heels throughout the game, but it was significantly superior to the alternative of sitting in base defense and giving Hartman time to operate because the defensive line certainly wasn’t going to create pressure on its lonesome nearly enough. I think he could have gone about this a little more intentionally, with more A-gap blitzes and less overloads on either side, but that there was a plan at all is a huge improvement from what we see most weeks from this team. And ultimately, though Wake Forest marched up and down the field on most of its drives, that regular helping of pressure helped the defense make just enough plays to not lose the game.

Phil Longo had a sterling first half, but after losing full use of a lot of his weapons in the second, things started to go a little sideways. He earned a lot of ire in the moment for not trying more QB sneaks at the goal line, but it did look like the first one left Maye a little shaken up, so I’m fine avoiding that — but I think that’s exactly the time to bring in a bigger back, or even a tight end into the backfield, and try running them into the line when you need six inches. I mentioned it in the Running Backs section, but the fixation on Elijah Green to be the do-everything back seems misguided, and definitely hurt Longo on Saturday. The other goal-to-go drive, that ended with Burnette’s field goal, was much more egregious. With a shaky passing game, Longo elected to try and pass on first and 4 while the aim should have been to run clock off, and the offense took a huge sack that took them away from striking distance and forced them to settle. Fortunately, Burnette hit the field goal and the rest was history, but that was a really bad sequence.

As for Mack Brown, what more is there to say? There were at least 3 fourth downs Wake Forest converted where the defense looked confused and in need of a timeout that he didn’t call, and a handful of plays generally where the boys in white looked very out of sorts. But his team keeps on winning close games, and whether that’s just positive regression or something he’s doing, I can’t complain too much.

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