The setting was all too familiar for North Carolina. The Tar Heels’ offense got off to a slow start against Georgia Tech, and the defense surrendered three touchdowns in the first 26 minutes of the game, allowing the Yellow Jackets to claim a 21-0 first-half lead.
Given the fact that six of UNC’s seven losses in 2014 came in games in which the Heels were trailing by double digits at half, it was obvious what was about to happen next. Or so it seemed.
It appeared to be another contest in which Carolina’s defense would fold, resulting in another blowout loss, but it was quite the opposite. The defense started to get stops, and quarterback Marquise Williams played his best game of the season, leading his team to a 38-31 victory, good for the largest comeback win in school history.
Under defensive coordinator Gene Chizik, the Tar Heels are playing bend-but-don’t-break defense after finishing No. 120 nationally in average yards allowed last fall, and it showed two Saturdays ago when Georgia Tech gained 417 yards of offense. But the fact that the defense isn’t breaking is a drastic improvement from last year, and it’s still been enough for UNC to start the season 4-1.
The hiring of Chizik in the offseason has clearly made a difference. However, there’s no doubt that the offense is what’s carrying North Carolina.
Through five games this season, Larry Fedora’s squad is averaging 471 yards of total offense per game — nearly 18 yards more than any other team in the ACC. The Tar Heels haven’t gotten there by being one-dimensional, however. So far, they’ve found success both on the ground and through the air.
One key to the run game has been consistency.
In the last two seasons, UNC juggled running backs, making it difficult for one player to get in a rhythm early in the year. To make matters worse, the offensive line was young, and the Heels were a middle-of-the-pack rushing team relative to the rest of the conference.
Behind a more experienced O-line this fall, sophomore Elijah Hood has established himself as the feature back. On 6.3 yards per carry, Hood is leading the team with 444 rushing yards and has emerged as a reliable option in short-yardage situations.
Williams has also continued to use his legs to pick up yards. Against the Yellow Jackets, he finished with a team-high 148 rushing yards with two scores on the ground. Along with Hood, the senior signal-caller is a major reason why the Tar Heels have the No. 2 rushing offense in the league.
Despite struggling with accuracy at times, Williams has been an above-average passer as well. Since throwing three interceptions in the season opener against South Carolina, the Charlotte, North Carolina, native has tossed five touchdown passes to only one pick. Even when Williams has struggled, backup Mitch Trubisky has filled in well, particularly with a four-touchdown performance in a 41-14 win over Delaware in September. Entering this weekend, Miami and Wake Forest are the only ACC squads averaging more yards per game through the air.
With seven games remaining, North Carolina still has a lot of work to do if it’s going to clinch the Coastal Division title. So far, the defense has done what it’s needed to do to avoid losing. Looking ahead, it will continue to be up to the offense to do what’s necessary to get the wins.