Whew. It wasn’t pretty, but the Jackets did enough to escape Chapel Hill with a 38-28 win over the North Carolina Tar Heels on Saturday. The win gives the Jackets their fourth victory in five games, and they now have a 72% chance of becoming bowl eligible according to the S&P+ Rankings. Some stats from Saturday’s box score seemingly indicate a strong offensive showing, with the Jackets racking up 565 yards of total offense while gaining 6.2 yards per carry. On the other hand, the box score also reminds us that Tech fumbled three times, finished just 4-of-12 on 3rd down conversions, and failed on two 4th down attempts. While there’s plenty of room for improvement across the board, quarterback Tobias Oliver and the Jackets’ offense did enough things right to defeat the Tar Heels and move the Jackets within one win of bowl eligibility.
North Carolina’s Defense
North Carolina ran a 4-3 defensive scheme, like we’ve seen from the majority of Tech’s opponents this season. The defense opted to line the middle linebacker up 6-7 yards off the line of scrimmage, making it difficult for Tech’s offensive linemen to block him at the second level. The two outside linebackers focused on inside run support while the middle linebacker and safeties prioritized run support on the outside.
The Tar Heels’ defense proved highly susceptible to allowing huge plays, which wasn’t much of a surprise considering they’re ranked 117th nationally in rushing yards allowed per game. But despite giving up a ton of yards, the defense stayed tough and came up with timely stops and turnovers to keep UNC in the game. The defensive line was particularly clutch, forcing two fumbles and accounting for four of the team’s five tackles for loss.
Rough Day for the UNC Safeties
No position group on the Tar Heels’ defense had a rougher day than the safeties. The position doesn’t come up often in conversations about stopping a flexbone offense, but a safety has the unenviable task of trying to defend both the run and the pass while usually finding themselves in the crosshairs of a blocking A-back or wide receiver on nearly every snap. Playing safety against the flexbone requires as much mental discipline as any position on the field, since one lapse can open the door for a huge touchdown. Here are three plays from Saturday in which the Jackets took advantage of mental lapses by the struggling UNC safeties:
On 1st & 10 with 10:36 remaining in the 1st Quarter, quarterback TaQuon Marshall got the Jackets’ offense rolling with a big gain on a Triple Option keeper. Typically on a Triple Option the offense identifies the playside defensive end as the dive key, but in this case the Jackets changed up their blocking scheme by making the playside outside linebacker the dive key and having the left tackle block the defensive end. Marshall keeps the ball as the outside linebacker crashes in on B-back Jordan Mason, and then does a great job recognizing that the middle linebacker (the pitch key) commits to guarding the A-back. TaQuon cuts upfield and despite not quite looking 100%, picks up 44 yards. Upon closer review, it’s clear that a big reason why Marshall has so much running room in the secondary is because the backside safety hesitates on his way to filling the hole Marshall eventually runs through. On plays like this the backside safety serves as the last line of defense, and on this particular play if he had stuck to his assignment he likely would have tackled TaQuon around the first down line.
Fake Speed Option/Pass
After Tobias Oliver pulled off a 49-28 victory over Virginia Tech last week without completing a single pass, the Tar Heels understandably weren’t expecting the Jackets to attempt any throws while the offense was running the ball with ease. Paul Johnson recognized this and dialed up a pass with 10:13 to go in the 2nd Quarter. A-back Clinton Lynch comes in motion pre-snap and the play begins just like an A-back Speed Option we’ve seen so many times before. The backside safety matches Lynch’s pre-snap motion, leaving the playside safety responsible for passes over the middle. The playside safety, expecting a run play, sees A-back Qua Searcy coming straight at him and squares up to take on the block... except that Searcy cuts slightly left at the last second and flies right past the flat-footed safety. Searcy ends up so open that even with the pass being underthrown, he always has at least five yards of separation from the closest defender. It’s encouraging to see Paul Johnson give Tobias Oliver the green light to throw the ball, and that added passing threat should force opposing teams’ safeties to stay back, opening up the run game even more.
A-back Counter Pull
A bit ago we looked at how hesitation on the part of UNC’s backside safety opened the door for TaQuon Marshall to pick up a 44-yard gain. With 1:28 remaining in the 2nd Quarter, however, the backside safety showed zero hesitation in crossing the field to help defend against the run; the only problem was that he was going the wrong direction. The Jackets exploited the safeties yet again by running a play that I’m going to call “A-back Counter Pull” (feel free to correct me in the comments). The play begins like a Triple Option, but the non-motioning A-back comes opposite the pre-snap motion and takes the handoff, protected by the pulling left guard. By the time Cottrell reaches the line of scrimmage with a full head of steam, the safety responsible for that side of the field still has his hips turned towards the wrong sideline. Cottrell takes advantage of the open space and picks up a 23-yard gain.
All three of these plays highlight the importance of the safeties when defending against the flexbone. Paul Johnson undoubtedly watches how the safeties react to each play and tries to exploit any weaknesses he identifies.
Up Next: Miami
This Saturday the Jackets will host the Miami Hurricanes in primetime on ESPN2. In last year’s heartbreaking 25-24 loss, the Jackets jumped out to a quick start, taking a 14-3 lead in the 2nd Quarter. Unfortunately, for the rest of the game the offense scored only three points and was forced to punt on their final four possessions. The Hurricanes have historically enjoyed an athletic advantage over the Jackets, and it’s typically most obvious in short yardage situations.
The play above is from last year’s matchup when the Jackets faced 3rd & 2 with 8:43 remaining in the 2nd Quarter, and it’s rich with examples of Miami’s athleticism. In a single play: 1) the backside linebacker dodges a cut block on his way to wrapping up quarterback TaQuon Marshall, 2) the nose tackle sheds the block from the center before meeting another block from B-back Kirvonte Benson, who he drives backwards, and 3) the middle linebacker avoids getting his feet tangled in the bodies falling around him before landing a diving hit on Marshall to stop him short of the first down line. There’s a reason Georgia Tech has lost to Miami in eight of their past nine matchups, and it’s because the Hurricanes are one of the most athletic teams in the country. Don’t expect the Jackets to dominate at the line of scrimmage like they did against Louisville or Virginia Tech. Perfect execution, not brute force, will be the key to victory if the Jackets are going to punch their ticket to bowl eligibility on Saturday night.