That's what it came down to on Saturday in Chapel Hill, we simply executed on offense and made enough adjustments on defense to get the job done. At some points it was beautiful (the opening TD) and at others painful (still need to tackle better) but in the end what matters is that we got the job done & picked up a conference win on the road. We're far from a complete team at this stage but Saturday was a step in the right direction as the Jackets played with great intensity & purpose. First the offense:
Other than intensity on Saturday the biggest difference between this week's win & last week's loss was simple: we executed & made plays. As we have in our two previous games, the Jackets scored on our first possession, this time it was a perfectly blocked 76 yard pitch to sophomore Orwin Smith on a triple option down the left sideline. I can't find the video yet but I'll post it when I get a chance because the play was perfectly executed: Roddy arcs the CB, Cone stalks the playside safety, Claytor crushed the playside LB while Anthony Allen cut the middle LB. Nesbitt forces the DE to commit early & makes a great pitch. But perhaps the best part of the play was RG Omoregie Uzzi, lumbering 20 yards downfield to re-direct the safety in pursuit, allowing Orwin to score untouched. It's a hell of a play by an offensive lineman to get that far down the field & factor in a play and without question Uzzi had his best day in a Tech uniform on Saturday.
I said in the preview on Thursday that we needed to block the perimeter better & both the A-backs & wide receivers delivered on Saturday. Cone, Melton, Sims & even Corey Earls made blocks on the edge, something we desperately needed & hadn't seen yet this year. But the day belonged the Roddy Jones as he not only made two clutch catches, one for a TD, but had the best day blocking of any A-back I can remember at Tech. Jones consistently crushed his man on the edge on Saturday, leaving Carolina blue strewn about the Kenan lawn and opening huge holes on the edge. And when he wasn't flipping Tar Heels ass-over-tea kettle? How about a TD catch on a wheel route from 23 yards out and a clutch grab from a scrambling Nesbitt on 3rd & 7 late in the 3rd quarter? That Carolina LB didn't need his ankles, anyway.
Speaking of throwing & catching, Saturday once again proves that it's not the number of times we throw but how effective we are when we do; 3-4 for 76 yards, including a TD & the aforementioned clutch 3rd down conversion was all we needed Saturday. Nesbitt looked calm & steady throwing the ball, something we're not always used to seeing but a welcome change.
The offensive line played their best game of the year & it showed mainly in Anthony Allen & Joshua Nesbitt's stat lines. Allen, who rushed for 115 yards on 20 attempts, not only ran hard but also blocked well, leading to several long gains by Nesbitt & the A-backs. Nesbitt (26-104) was his usual self, dragging tacklers with him for important yards. Nesbitt did miss several reads on Saturday but played a solid game as both pitches that went awry weren't his fault (Roddy tripped & Marcus Wright simply mishandled the ball.) But the turning point in the game came in the second quarter as Tech embarked on the patented "Paul Johnson Death March" to close out the half, a 19 play, 10:39 odyssey that ended in field goal to close the half & left our defense rested & theirs simply worn out. All told, at one point in the 3rd quarter on Saturday, Tech had run 57 of 69 plays, a telling statistic that showed on the UNC defense at the end of the game; they were simply gassed. This is an underrated part of our offense but one we shouldn't forget: the pounding we inflict on defenses takes its toll late in games. Before we wrap up the offensive analysis we'd be remiss not to mention backup center Jay Finch, who started the second half for All-ACC performer Sean Bedford while he was getting treated for cramps. Finch brought the lumber in his brief time on the field on Saturday as we opened the second stanza with Anthony Allen dives of 7,8,7, & 9 yards on consecutive plays. It's great to have offensive line depth this year.
Defensively, while we still have a LOT to work on, we improved & adjusted on Saturday, something we couldn't do last season. Take a look at the drive chart from Saturday:
Carolina's first four possessions: FG, TD, TD, TD
Carolina's last five possessions: punt, fumble, punt, fumble, turnover on downs
That might not be ideal but it shows we are making adjustments & coaching i game, something we couldn't do last year. So what changed our defensive fortunes on Saturday? Some observations:
- far more players in the rotation, particularly in the front seven. We had much more energy & life up front on Saturday and it showed, especially late in the game when we looked much fresher than UNC.
- TJ Barnes at nose tackle. It looks as if the light is finally coming on for the mammoth redshirt sophomore. Barnes played his best game as a Jacket on Saturday making several key plays, including a stop on 3rd & goal from the three. But maybe most importantly Barnes demands a double team, freeing up others to make plays.
- The linebackers are beginning to get the 3-4. Brad Jefferson at Mike LB and Brandon Watts at Jack LB played well on Saturday. Watts is a tremendous athlete who is able to scrape & chase plays from the backside. He can also cover the short routs & was key in limiting UNC tight end Zach Pianalto. The more he plays, the better we will be. Jefferson is our best run defender & our best tackler, two things we desperately need. Steven Sylvester continued to play well at Sam LB.
- Mario Butler is vastly under-appreciated. He's a very fine corner who doesn't get the credit he deserves. As a whole, our secondary played well, forcing Yates through several progressions & away from his first read. With more pressure up front, this will result in sacks & interceptions. Sure Isaiah Johnson got toasted on the out & up route by Highsmith. It happens, particularly to true freshmen. I'm sure he'll learn from it.
While we played better in the second half, our defense remains suspect & at best a work in progress. We have to be better defending the run & pressuring the QB or better teams will give us fits. But we played well enough to win on Saturday & we adjusted, so we've got that going for us (goonga la dunga....).
After last week's special teams implosion we were much better this week as Scott Blair made three field goals, we covered & returned kicks well, and broke in a new punter as Sean Poole hit the only punt of the game for the Jackets. A much better effort.
It's not hard to see we have a lot to work on as a team. But we snagged a division & conference road win on Saturday, something no Tech fan should look down on. We've certainly got a long way to go, but we made solid progress on Saturday. Now to NC State.....