What’s the locker room like after a football team wins its home opener, conference opener, first game of the season, and second win over a Power-5 team in fifteen tries?
“Lot of jumping around, yelling, dancing,” junior tailback Antonio Williams said. “The atmosphere afterwards was absolutely amazing. That’s how it’s supposed to feel in a locker room after a game.”
Senior linebacker Cole Holcomb put it more succinctly.
“It was pretty lit.”
After the way UNC played on Saturday, winning their sixth straight game against the Pittsburgh Panthers by a closer-than-it-looked scoreline of 38-35, the Tar Heels more than earned the honor of celebrating for just a little bit. Sure, there is plenty of room for improvement. But after the problems from the first two games, it was apparent at times, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, that UNC looked like a completely different team.
Here’s three things that stood out from UNC’s big win.
It starts with a rejuvenated Nathan Elliott, looking like a completely different quarterback than the one that threw four picks against Cal and missed wideouts against ECU. He finished 22-for-31 with 313 yards and two touchdowns.
Some of his success was play design, focusing on short passes around the line of scrimmage and letting his receivers, such as Dazz Newsome (six catches, 110 yards) and Anthony Ratliff-Williams (four catches, 84 yards), do the work after the catch. But his improvement was also was his mentality and adjustments in how he played week to week, and the time off from Hurricane Florence helped him zero in on what the problem those first two games was, and what do to fix it.
“Just not overthinking it,” Elliott said. “When I see the defense, just know what they’re giving me and take advantage of it.”
Coach Larry Fedora thought his starting quarterback felt a little bit of the pressure early on this season, but the time off helped him reset his mindset a little bit.
“Nathan is really hard on himself, he wants to please everybody,” Fedora said. “I think he probably relaxed a little bit, you know? And just said, you know what, I need to play ball.”
Running Back trio excels
Perhaps the most heralded position group on UNC’s team headed into the season, the tailbacks showed out on Saturday in a variety of ways. Antonio Williams was the highlight, running for 114 yards and two scores, including an impressive open field scamper for 37-yards for his first score. Williams constantly drove through tackles, fighting for extra yards, while also showing off the speed and elusiveness that made the Ohio State transfer a 4-star recruit coming out of high school.
Michael Carter made his season debut, grabbing 30 yards on six carries, but snagged his second career receiving touchdown in the second quarter, when Pitt left him wide open off the play-action up the middle for an easy 28-yard score, and threw a crucial block picking up the blitz on Elliott’s second touchdown of the day to Dyami Brown, drawing the praise of Fedora in his post game presser.
Jordon Brown was also effective in spurts, scoring a touchdown of his own on a one-yard run, and finishing with 31 yards total.
Michael Carter being back gives UNC three starting caliber options in the backfield, allowing Fedora and the offensive staff to get creative with their formations and play calling, while also having the ability to always have someone fresh out there if someone gets tired.
It’s a crazy big advantage for the Tar Heels to have, and may prove to be the difference as the season goes on.
Defensive Ups and Downs
UNC’s defense has been an enigma through three games in 2018. It looked awesome against Cal, awful against ECU, and somewhere in between against Pitt.
The Tar Heels were good in pass defense, holding Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett to just 174 yards in the air, sacking him three times, forcing five QB hurries, and making Pickett roll out to make passes, which he often misfired out of the pocket. Good coverage on these plays from the defensive backs were also key.
But the run defense could not be found at times in the first half, as the Tar Heels let the duo of Darrin Hall and Qadree Ollison rack up a combined 127 yards and two touchdowns on just 13 carries in the first half. The defensive line absorbed blocks, but the linebackers and secondary were out of position and missed tackles.
“When they got big plays were when our eyes were bad and we weren't communicating,” Holcomb said. “Coach told us ‘if you guys just go with your coverage and do what we've coached you to do we're going to win this game.’”
That adjustment to play with their eyes solved the problem in the second half, as UNC held Pitt to -5 yards in the third quarter and did a much better job keying in on runs. Hall and Ollison combined for just 29 yards on 7 carries and no touchdowns in the second half.
In-context Quote of the Day
“I had to try and get people away from me. I knew we were right there in range and it could come up [to kick a field goal]. I just had to breathe, get my breath back because I was pretty out of breath – I'm not used to doing all that too often. So just breathe. I hit two balls after that. I wasn't tight at all, I was pretty loose after that. As far as me being able to personally say 'I got the ball back and then I kicked the field goal,' that was pretty cool."
-Placekicker Freeman Jones on recovering a fumble on a kickoff and kicking a field goal on the ensuing drive
Out-of-context Quote of the Day
“I don’t have enough mullet.”