For this game, I watched film of UNC's loss to South Carolina. This game was a curiously low-scoring affair, but UNC was still able to have some success moving the ball down the field. Given their schedule so far, it's tough to really determine where the Tar Heels are right now. They lost a game they should have won in Week 1, then played 3 vastly inferior opponents since then. As Tech fans have become acutely aware, it is difficult to judge a team by their first game, or by games against cupcakes. I chose this game because, while the Gamecocks aren't a great team this year, they are the best team UNC has faced to this point.
Formations, Plays, and Tendencies
In this game, the Tar Heels operated out of a 10 personnel base(1 RB and 0 TE), meaning they had 4 WR with the QB lined up in the pistol. The receivers will line up either in Trips(3 receivers to one side) or Double Twins. This formation really shows how the UNC offense likes to spread the defense thin and attack them where they are weak. By forcing the LBs or safeties outside with 4 WR sets, the middle of the field is often exposed, allowing them to run Power up the middle or use the read option. If the defense collapses inwards as a result, they are fond of throwing the screen to Ryan Switzer on the Trips side or giving him the ball on the motion sweep. If the defense brings the safeties up to defend against the running ability of Marquise Williams, they'll throw the ball to their big WRs down the field. On top of that, the speed at which the offense operates makes it difficult for the defense to adjust on the fly, so the Tar Heels can repeatedly attack the same defensive deficiency.
The UNC offense will also occasionally bring in 2 RB or a TE and have some off-tackle runs, but the core of the offense remains the same. They like to move quickly, spread the defense out, and play numbers games. Last year, the defense simply couldn't deal with it, and was gashed all night. This year, the defense looks improved, but will rely on strong individual performances in order to secure the win.
After a brief QB controversy in which he was benched last week, Marquise Williams has been named the starter this week against the Jackets. How long that holds up is yet to be determined, but for now it should be assumed that he will play the whole game.
The memory of what Williams did to the Tech defense last year is still fresh in the minds of the fans, as images of Williams galloping through the secondary still haunt our collective psyche. While he looked like an All-American candidate that day, his inconsistency helped drive UNC to a mediocre season. How well UNC moves the ball on Saturday will likely hinge on which version of Williams shows up, the good one or the bad one.
It was Bad Marquise that showed up in the opener. It is absurd to try to pin a loss on one player, but it was certainly easy to point fingers at Williams after his performance. Going back and watching the film, the deficiencies in his game are apparent, and may belie the reasons for his "inconsistency". Instead of Williams simply being inconsistent, it may be that certain teams expose his weakness more than others.
William's problems lie primarily in the passing game, resulting in 3 similar interceptions against the Gamecocks. The first one, an interception in the end zone by the SC Linebacker, shows the issues that have plagued Williams this year.
So what went wrong here for Williams? A couple things. First, he repeatedly misreads zone coverage, and loses track of the defender underneath his intended target. He sees that that the receiver has separation from the primary man who was covering him, but fails to see the LB crossing in front in the shallow zone. None of this would be an issue, however, if Williams puts any touch on this ball whatsoever. He just throws a dart right into the chest of the defender, which is something he did on almost all of his passes that I saw. Interceptions like this one happened twice more in the game, each time to a player in an underneath zone. It may be wise for the Jackets to drop their LBs into coverage in passing situations, both to contain Williams and bait him into throwing interceptions.
All that said, every Tech fan knows not to take Williams lightly, he torched the entire defense last year, and could easily do so again. To add to the worry, Tech has not faced a running QB quite as adept as Williams yet. Considering how much trouble the Jackets have had with mobile QBs in the past, it could be something to watch.
Oh boy. This group will be a handful. Between Elijah Hood and TJ Logan, the Tar Heels boast a loaded backfield that they can keep fresh by substituting. This group allows the offense to attack the middle of the field, an area that is spread thin by 4 WR sets. I could go in depth about Hood's abilities in particular, but this clip from the opening game should sum it up nicely.
If the Tech defense decides to tackle like it did in the 1st quarter of the Duke game again, the Jackets will find themselves in a deep hole. The line of scrimmage will need to be controlled as well. The last thing these RBs need is a head of steam.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
The skill positions on this team are an embarrassment of riches. Two tall receivers on the outside plus a dynamic slot receiver in Ryan Switzer? It's a good thing the Tech secondary is battle-tested. UNC likes to get Switzer the ball in the form of screen passes and motion sweeps, like the one in this clip:
Just another way that this offense can attack different areas of the field based on what the defense gives them. For vertical passing, the Tar Heels will turn to their big outside receivers. The one that stood out to me in this game was Bug Howard. He was able to easily find the soft spots in South Carolina's zone coverage, and was surprisingly adept at getting yards after the catch. It was Howard that caught UNC's only touchdown of the game, a well-threaded needle from Williams on a post route. Again, big individual efforts from DJ White and Chris Milton will be required in order to free up the safeties to contain Williams or the UNC rushers. Switzer against Lawrence Austin will be another matchup to watch. It could be a scary one, with the most inexperienced starter on the defense going against one of the most dangerous weapons on the field.
This group wasn't spectacular, but they held their own against the South Carolina Defensive Front. In the run game, they weren't able to get much push, but they did open up a couple of creases that Elijah Hood was able to take advantage of. South Carolina's LBs also failed to fill these gaps when they needed to on a few occasions, which helped the run game. In the pass game, Williams' ability as a runner will slow the pass rush, so they weren't usually called upon to face aggressive pass rushing. Overall, this unit isn't flashy like the skill positions, but they get the job done. The Tech DL will need to come out strong at the point of attack if they want to avoid a game like last year's.
On a side note, there was a play were the ENTIRE UNC OL cut blocked, so if any of your Tar Heel friends complain about "those dirty chop blocks" we employ, refer them to this article.
Formations and Tendencies
The Tar Heels employs a 4 man front, and in this game primarily operated out of the 4-2-5. Once South Carolina brought out the Wildcat with WR Pharaoh Cooper taking the snaps, UNC reverted to a 4-3 scheme, which would be expected against the Jackets.
This defense doesn't blitz a ton, and when they do the generally only send 1 guy. Despite their more aggressive personality, they prefer to bail into coverage rather than put pressure on the passer. I found this curious, given the lack of a pass rush throughout the game against a young South Carolina QB playing on a big stage.
As I said previously, this group is aggressive, and tries to disrupt plays in the backfield. They aren't always successful, but the different attitude brought in by new Defensive Coordinator Gene Chizik is apparent. The drawback here is that sometimes the defense gets a bit too aggressive, and overruns the play. This tendency would be ideal for the Georgia Tech offense, as the Jackets would certainly love it if players took themselves out of the play and didn't need to be blocked.
Exhibit A on how not to over-pursue(watch the safety):
I wasn't particularly impressed with this group, as the interior of the line occasionally was badly pushed off their spot by the South Carolina OL. They also didn't generate a huge pass rush, when they did try to rush aggressively, South Carolina responded by throwing screen passes over their heads. Given the film of the South Carolina game, I am not at all surprised by the fact that Delaware, an FCS school, ran all over this defense. If the Tech offensive line can't generate push against this group, then this may be a long, long season.
This group didn't particularly impress me either. There were missed tackles and instances where they weren't as fast as the offense getting to the sideline. They also didn't do a great job of getting off blocks or filling gaps aggressively. If they have the same level of indecisiveness against the Georgia Tech offense, the Tech OL will finally be able to block the Middle LB, opening up the offensive playbook.
This group was not heavily tested in this match up. South Carolina's QB was not impressive, and missed on several throws. The Gamecocks do have a dangerous WR in Cooper, but he played a shockingly large number of snaps at QB. As expected, very few pass plays were run while he was in the game. This group does succumb to some of the same flaws as the Linebackers, in that they over-pursue and don't tackle particularly well. None of them are on the same level as, say, a Jeremy Cash, so Tech fans can take that small comfort.
In this game, the special teams was adequate. No flashy plays, no major miscues, just decent. What's important to note here, however, has nothing to do with this game. Against Illinois, Ryan Switzer returned yet another punt for a touchdown, and is now 2 Punt Return TDs away from possessing the NCAA career record for Punt Return TDs. Given Tech's struggles last week covering the punt against Duke, this is perhaps the most concerning part of the Saturday's game. It will be important for the punt unit to not punt to Switzer however possible. Kick the ball out of bounds, put a lot of hangtime on the ball, go for it on 4th and 27, just DON'T KICK THE BALL TO SWITZER. Hold your breath on special teams folks, this one's going to be a stressful.
Previewing the Game
I, like many of the Tech faithful, feel that this game's outcome depends heavily on the blocking improvements made this week by the offense. After two dreadful weeks, any sort of improvement would be welcome and could swing the tide of the game. However, after last week, any expectations of improvement have been held in check. I can't tell you if the problems will be fixed this week, or next week, or ever. It's all a matter of being patient and analyzing the film to see where the improvements are made, if they are made at all.
You may have noticed that the write up about the North Carolina defense is a bit shorter than the write up about the offense. There's a reason for that. Simply put, nobody on the North Carolina Defense stood out to me while watching this game, none at all. While watching Notre Dame film, Jaylon Smith was all over the place, and it jumped off the page. With Duke, I'm sure every Tech fan is aware of who stood out in that game. With North Carolina, there was just... nothing. That's not to say that I believe the Tech offense will roll over this team. I no longer have any idea what to believe, but it does give me hope. The teams that have historically limited the option have had stellar players on defense. Kam Chancellor, Kyle Fuller, Jaylon Smith, Jeremy Cash, to name a few. Hope, however, is dangerous, especially for fans of Atlanta sports teams.
There will be a decent number of points scored in this game. This defense is not as good as the two that stifled the Tech offense the past 2 weeks, and UNC's offense is one of the most dangerous the Jackets will face this year, even if it doesn't consistently produce points. I generally don't like labeling games as "must win," but if any game deserves that moniker it's this one. The blocking issues for the Jackets have to be fixed this week, or the season is all but over.
Nope. Not doing it. Sorry. After my embarrassing prediction last week, which shall be discussed no further, I'm not picking this game. There's no way to really know if Tech's offensive woes have improved, and not much is known about this UNC squad either at this point. The best way to predict this game may be a coin toss.